Sergio Gonzalez has been the city manager of South Pasadena for nearly two years now. A career City Hall employee who started out with the Department of Recreation and Youth Services in 2003, Gonzalez’s contract as city manager extends for five years, which should give him plenty of time to follow through on some of the key goals that the city has outlined in its quest to make South Pasadena ever more attractive for select businesses, while continuing to provide residents high-quality services and amenities.
Gonzalez recently sat down with Patch for a wide-ranging interview. Excerpts:
Patch: What’s the annual budget of the City of South Pasadena?
Sergio Gonzalez: Roughly $22 million. And that goes to pay for everything in the city to operate, including our own Fire department, our own police, city administration, finance, our community services department that runs all the recreation activities, our library, our public works department that maintains the streets and parks. We have close to 220 employees. It’s challenging, but we’re very mindful of our expenditures. We don’t spend what we don’t have. And that’s what has made us successful over the years. And that’s why we have over a 40-percent reserve level, which ensures that in case of a catastrophic event we have some money in the bank.
But we also understand that we need to start putting money back into the infrastructure because it’s been neglected for so many years. You’ve got reservoirs that are close to 90 years old. You’ve got a sewer system that is breaking, and we’re under a consent judgment from the Department of Justice to get it fixed. We have streets that have a lot of bumps, a lot of cracks, a lot of hazardous conditions that we need to address. This year alone we’re spending close to $3.5 million on streets, plus last year’s allocation. Our residents are going to see about $5.5 million worth of street projects. So, this [City] Council is not only spending money on infrastructure, but we’re very financially secure.
Patch: Which sectors of the city would you say are stronger than others?
Gonzalez: We have what I consider four legs of the stool, three of which are very strong legs. We have a great school district, we have great property values, and I think we have great city services and amenities. The fourth leg that we’re going to work on is sales tax. We certainly don’t want to attract a Walmart or a Target—we don’t have the land for it, we don’t have the demand for it, they don’t want to come, we don’t want them here. A few years ago we did a study called “Land Use and Retail Analysis” to tell us what type of businesses would thrive in South Pasadena. And we found that, based on our population, income levels and education levels, there are two types of businesses that would thrive the most.
One is restaurants, and the second one is home décor. And so, what you will be seeing in the years to come is more restaurants moving into South Pas, which creates foot traffic, energy, a ripple effect to other businesses. In home décor, we have a renowned store—Mission Tile West. There are several other stores on Mission where people come to shop for tiles, curtains, etc.
Patch: What are you doing to attract these businesses, given that they might not be aware of the study—and even if they were, the study wont necessarily pull them in?
Gonzalez: One thing we found out is that you can study things until you’re blue in the face. What gets results is personal relationships. We have a lot of owner-operated businesses in South Pas. And we're trying to work with the existing businesses that are already here, so that they can stay here. National chains have a very robust support system for their franchises. Our owner-operated businesses need the technical assistance, and so we’re developing relationships with the Chamber of Commerce, the Foothill Workforce Investment Board and the State Economic Development Association to try to get low-cost or free technical assistance for our businesses.
But we’re also trying to get more proactive in identifying the types of businesses that would be enticed to come to South Pas. And that would be through referrals, working with the Chamber. We have an assistant city manager who will be on economic development for the downtown project. So we see that as a synergy wherein we start fitting the pieces of the puzzle together in the hope that the puzzle fills out. The key is to reduce the amount of ‘leakages’ by preventing our residents to go out to shop. What we want to do is to identify those items that our residents can get here in South Pas, so that they don’t have to go to Pasadena or Alhambra. And at the same time we want people to come to South Pas to spend their tax dollars.
Patch: How much sales tax are you trying to increase?
Gonzalez: We don’t have a target amount right now. But one of the things that we can do is through the regulation of land use standards, including parking standards. We have a very old code that has restrictions on the number of parking spaces per thousand square feet. We need to look at that and promote the idea that you don’t have to have the exact number of sparking spaces—rather you can try to get people out of their cars so that they can use public transportation to get here.
We don’t have to have an intense emphasis on parking. People want parking to be two things—reliable and convenient. And maybe a third thing would be reasonably priced—or free. And so, apart from being proactive to see what businesses would come here, we also have to work on our parking management plan. We don’t have a centralized parking system, like other cities—Alhambra, Pasadena, Monrovia. And that’s an area we’re going to be working on next year.
Patch: Are we talking multistory parking structures, which may not be pleasing to the eye?
Gonzalez: Definitely, that would have to be in the mix because we don’t have enough land to have a large surface lot. The challenge with those is that they become large buildings, but there’s a way to work on their façade so that they become more interweaved into the building structure here in the city.
Patch: Does the Metro bring people into South Pas?
Gonzalez: Absolutely. Every Thursday, people get on the Metro to come to the Farmers Market and get off the Metro to go home with fresh produce. Or they come here and have dinner and get back on the Metro. Actually, our city is considered one of the premier examples of transit-oriented development. Have you ever seen—and I’m sure you have—the energy that exists on Mission and Meridian on a Thursday? It’s something that many cities want to emulate.
To be continued.