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San Fernando
Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

San Fernando: A Little City with Big Aspirations

As seen on a map, the City of San Fernando is an island surrounded by Los Angeles. But the city staff charged with attracting and retaining business there does not have an island mentality. They know it is not a level playing field between themselves and their gargantuan neighbor and that it is difficult to compete against Los Angeles in economic development. Still, this postage-stamp size of a city does well for itself. Just this year the city opened a brand new aquatic center that has become the envy of other cities, and has received $4.6 million in highly competitive state grants for infrastructure improvements. In the third week of October, the City of San Fernando was awarded another $1 million from CalTrans and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The city’s police department keeps crime rates low, and water rates are also kept low due to an independent water supply for most of the year. The Los Angeles Unified School District chose San Fernando as the site of two new schools. In early October the city received an A-plus rating from bond rater Standard and Poor’s. “It says we are not going to mismanage your dollars,” said City Administrator Jose Pulido. “It says if you stay with us we might leverage $5, $6, or $7 more for every dollar you give us.” The city staff does all it can within its 2.4-square miles to make it attractive to businesses; from the quaint downtown centered around municipal buildings and county courthouse; the neighborhoods with homes dating from the early 20th century; to the mall paseo; to the industrial parks that are home to manufacturers with a global reach. In strict monetary terms San Fernando collects a business tax at a rate that hasn’t changed since 1957. There is no utility tax and no systematic code enforcement fees. Police respond for free to three alarm calls from businesses and only charge beginning with the fourth. Try to find that in Los Angeles. But it all starts at City Hall and the responsiveness of the staff in the various departments. If there’s one common benefit that neighboring cities to Los Angeles love to tout it is the lack of a bureaucracy to work one’s way through to get planning or zoning approval. Unlike other cities, San Fernando has no need to promote expediting planning and zoning matters as an incentive for businesses to locate there because moving quickly on applications and permits is an every day occurrence. “You are always going to see somebody,” said Fred Ramirez, a senior planner. “You don’t have to schedule a meeting.” Good Neighbors San Fernando has a legacy as the first organized center in the San Fernando Valley. It became the administrative center for the east Valley; the area where the financial, legal and medical professions congregated. Pulido and his team think that can happen again. Pulido knows the city hit hard times in the ’70s and ’80s, but he envisions bringing it back to an earlier era of solid middle class; the era when his parents moved to the city. That means coming up with creative ways to get businesses to consider San Fernando over Los Angeles. “We don’t have $30 million to entice big business,” Pulido said. “What we do have is access to 1.5 million people.” As a regional center for retail shopping, its stores draw customers not only from adjacent L.A. neighborhoods of Sylmar, Pacoima and Mission Hills, but even from Santa Clarita. The San Fernando locations of Home Depot and Sam’s Club are among those chains highest revenue generating stores, said the City’s Finance Director Lorena Quijano. The Sam’s Club is an example of how the two cities do work together, as the parking lot is in Sylmar and the store itself in San Fernando. There was controversy over that decision but it was the best way to site the store as it was set back from the street, said Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose 7th District completely surrounds San Fernando. “The city of Los Angeles lost out on that revenue,” Alarcon said. “But nevertheless it was a cooperative project.” Alarcon points to other joint projects from his time as councilman or state senator representing that area of the Valley: a sustainable housing project straddling both cities; a Cesar Chavez memorial; and a new townhouse proposal that had Alarcon meeting with San Fernando elected officials about density issues. The two cities jointly formed a sub-region of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment of the Southern California Association of Governments to identify housing needs. “They are the elephant and we are the gnat,” Community Development Director Paul Deibel said. “Together we get to the same destination.” Neither Alarcon nor Alex Padilla, the former 7th District councilman and now Alarcon’s successor as state senator, see the two cities as competitors. Wherever economic development takes place it benefits the region as a whole. Both men have sisters living in San Fernando, and Alarcon’s grandfather worked at what is now the middle school. The cities are intertwined because family and business relations cross the border. “I think the municipal boundaries for most people who live in the northeast Valley are mostly invisible,” Padilla said. While the boundaries may be invisible that doesn’t make the two sides indistinguishable. Alarcon is cognizant of his district bordering San Fernando and frankly says he gets tired of hearing people tell him that they know when they leave Los Angeles for its smaller neighbor because San Fernando is so much nicer. “It forces me to get more resources to those areas that are on the direct border of San Fernando so people will not be able to distinguish so much,” Alarcon said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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