Leaders highlights tactics during State of the City
The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce, from Goleta to Carpinteria, hosted another installment in its virtual State of the City” series Friday morning — this time for the city of Santa Barbara.
The presentation was broadcast from the State Street Visitor Center.
The program featured remarks from representatives from the local economic, education, tourism, health care and real estate sectors. In addition, the three mayoral candidates running against current Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo this November shared their vision of how the city can recover from the 15-month pandemic and improve across all categories.
Santa Barbara’s State of the City came shortly after the recent reopening of the state of California, sans mask mandates, business closures, social distancing and capacity requirements and all other pandemic regulations. Because of this timing, the speakers highlighted the city’s perseverance through the worst of the past year and three months, and they spoke to the incoming recovery as businesses and schools reopen.
“We experienced an economic downturn more crippling than anything since the Great Depression,” Jason Harris, the city’s economic development manager, said during the presentation. “… We have remained resilient throughout, and we have much to be thankful for — the resilience of our businesses, the resilience of our health care workers and academic institutions and the resilience of Santa Barbarans.”
Mr. Harris said that while the pandemic exacerbated long-standing challenges in the city such as housing and homelessness, hotel occupancy is increasing and financial assistance is available for small businesses via the state and federal government. The Santa Barbara City Council recently passed his three-year economic development plan, which he outlined during his remarks.
The plan details strategies to full recovery and a thriving city post-pandemic, focusing on: social equity, environmental protection, the city’s historic character and cultural resources, vibrant commercial districts, a positive business climate, new partnerships, increasing local purchasing opportunities, bilingual communications, improvements in land development processes and aid in revitalization of the downtown core.
“Our recovery is certain, but it must be crafted and invested together,” he said.
Dr. Hilda Maldonado, the superintendent of Santa Barbara Unified School District, highlighted the resilience of students, teachers and parents throughout the course of the pandemic. She also brought to light some statistics highlighting trends in socioeconomic disadvantages among students.
For instance, she said, 50% of the student population is considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. Roughly 13% of the district’s students are designated as homeless, and 15% are emerging multilingual students. She noted that compared to white students, students of color are three times as likely to be misidentified as having a specific learning disability. She also said Latino students are underrepresented in advanced courses and less likely to attend college.
Furthermore, Dr. Maldonado said that 74% of white Santa Barbara Unified students are prepared for college and career readiness, but only 38% of Latino students are prepared.
“We believe we’re only as good as our lowest performing students,” the superintendent said, adding that she hopes these statistics (which are common among many other regions in the nation) create a “national societal awakening and call for educational and social justice.”
“I’ve been in the mode of listening, learning and leading through a pandemic, with the goal of keeping our staff and students safe and reopening our campuses to full, in-person learning as soon as possible,” Dr. Maldonado said.
Kathy Janega-Dykes, the CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, spoke to the blows the pandemic dealt to the tourism and hospitality industries, referencing the 50% unemployment rate among hotel workers, the 640,000 room nights lost by the region’s hotels since last March and the inability to collect the 12% transient occupancy tax.
However, she highlighted the positives: Santa Barbara has been in high demand for travelers, the pace of recovery is “surprising,” and data shows that “Santa Barbara remains a very appealing leisure destination.”
“We have many reasons to enter the summer season with optimism,” she said. “The intent to travel has increased to levels we haven’t seen since the pandemic began.”
Ron Werft, the president and CEO of Cottage Health, covered the local health care sector’s accomplishments over the past year, from specialized care units and personal protective equipment partners to testing capabilities and finally, the COVID-19 vaccines. He said that the region now has “very low COVID case rates,” “more than 50% of eligible people in the county vaccinated” and “very low hospitalization numbers.”
“The 2021 winter surge of the virus has really strained our health systems, and mostly our health care workers,” he said. “We’re all still recovering from that. It’s been an impact that’s been physical, emotional and financial for many of our health systems, and certainly for workers.”
Now, Mr. Werft said, Cottage Health is focused on continued vaccine outreach, prepping for potential variant-related demand increase, the future of vaccine boosters, improving the PPE supply chain, the future of telemedicine and current construction projects.
Francois DeJohn, co-founder of the Hayes Commercial Group, provided numerous statistics on the condition of commercial real estate in Santa Barbara, posing two key questions: How steep will the recovery curve be? And what lasting shifts in use of commercial, office and retail space might result from the pandemic?
Key statistics included: stronger than expected commercial sales only down 6% from 2019; sales activity down 19% in 2021; slow leasing activity; very stable sale prices and rental rates only down less than 5% since 2019; and increased vacancy at an all-time high of 13%.
“In summary, the city of Santa Barbara is experiencing many of the same real estate struggles other cities have faced during the pandemic, but we have weathered the storm surprisingly well, and I am very optimistic about this city,” Mr. DeJohn said.
At the conclusion of the State of the City presentation, with the exception of Santa Barbara’s current mayor, the candidates running for mayor in November — James Joyce, Randy Rowse and Deborah Schwartz — shared their visions of the city’s future.
Mr. Joyce said if elected, he would start by sitting down with each individual council member and ask for their five biggest priorities. He said he would be proactive in addressing needs of local businesses, invest in a shop local program and create a business outreach officer position.
“I’m running for mayor because what we’ve been doing isn’t working, and we can do it better,” he said. “… We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, because listening is important.”
Mr. Rowse said that there are hurdles impeding the city’s path to recovery, specifically homelessness and housing. He said “civic strategies and political courage have yet to emerge from the situation to bring the situation under control.”
He said he would provide a “laserlike focus on local matters” and create unity between City Hall and businesses.
“I’m sad that the (current) mayor has taken the unfortunate position of disregarding that relationship,” Mr. Rowse said.
Ms. Schwartz said the city faces three main crises: homelessness, a housing inventory shortage and economic vitality threats. She said as mayor, she is the only one with the connections to successfully advocate on a state and federal level for funds to address the homeless. The candidate also promised to change policies and internal department practices currently delaying housing development approvals and keep the workforce local.
Elected city officials “who have served in office over the last decade and more are responsible for the housing and inventory crisis and have not earned the community’s confidence to continue or return,” she said. “A respectful, collaborative relationship between the mayor and the business community is essential.”