“Tourism is the engine that drives the train.” I have heard several prominent members of our business community make this statement. Certainly it is a large and vibrant part of Santa Monica’s economic mix, but does it trump other industries?
Santa Monica’s auto industry provides the highest sales tax receipts. Its contribution to Santa Monica’s commerce needs to be recognized. Most cities compete for dealerships with incentives, promises of support and do whatever they can to attract these tax generators. We have the great good fortune to be home to virtually every major car brand. All right, so you have to go to Beverly Hills for a Rolls, Ferrari or for your stretch limo. But I buy my real cars here in Santa Monica. I have bought Ford, Acura, Infiniti, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Isuzu (are they still with L.A. Car Guy?). Heck, I miss Claude Short Dodge, where my contracting company had bought numerous fleet vehicles over the years.
There has been talk of providing more support to this vital SM industry. Perhaps a sign on the freeway showing the way to our very own “Auto Mall” would be a good place to start. With additional road signs assisting people to the location of all the dealerships. Maybe even some relief on signage ordinances, thus allowing for a grander presentation?
One major planning issue that needs to be dealt with is providing off-site parking for car inventory and staff parking. Major brands require a dealership to have a certain amount of showroom space and inventory on hand. With space being tight in this city, these are tough conditions to satisfy. Do note Ford/Lincoln/Mercury, L.A. Car Guy’s Lexus and Hornburg Jaguar/Land Rover have new Santa Monica showrooms opened and in the works.
The city needs to be proactive and communicate with the auto dealers their 10-year plans for inclusion in the new “General Plan” being worked on. Parking in residential neighborhoods has proven to be nettlesome, so new zoning that allows more onsite parking structures is necessary.
Auto-related businesses also constitute a large economic engine. Consider tire shops (Woodley Tires is a longtime family-run business), car washes, repair facilities, body shops, used cars, lube or transmission shops and plain old gas stations. Lincoln and Santa Monica Boulevards are a hotbed of auto -related businesses. At last count, there were 73 auto-related businesses from the Santa Monica Freeway to Washington Boulevard.
One of our larger business categories is commercial real estate. Think of all the ground floor businesses along Wilshire, Lincoln, Santa Monica, Colorado, Olympic, Pico, Main and Montana. These are really small commercial complexes of all sizes and variety and provide a source of great wealth for Santa Monica. They are, generally speaking, locally-serving companies. We also have many significant and large complexes in town. Think Colorado Place, Water Garden, Arboretum, 100 Wilshire, Douglas Emmett Properties throughout town, First Federal’s headquarters on Wilshire and the Rand building in the civic center. These swell the city’s daily population and provide offices for those in high-end businesses. So much so that there is actually a jobs imbalance in this city, with more jobs than people to fill them, causing traffic issues on the Santa Monica Freeway and throughout town.
Pair commercial with residential real estate (homes, apartments, large complexes like SM Shores) and I think you have found the behemoth where real wealth resides. Property. As the saying goes, “God created the earth once, but he is still making people.” Santa Monica can’t push any further west, and there are no major new developments on the horizon, so with the demand to be near the ocean (our true wealth as a city) property values are likely to continue appreciating, at least in the long-term.
There is a whole lot more to town, though, such as our two major hospitals – St. John’s and SM-UCLA – plus all the ancillary health businesses. SMC is a major employer. Lots of entertainment and media companies call Santa Monica home; even Google and Yahoo have major facilities in town. There is also dining, retail and the opening of a new “design district” in town. Plus, there is the financial sector, with the Wilshire 5000 index, Dimensional Funding and other big-time players in town, including the largest public company in Santa Monica, First Federal. The list can go on and on, and includes major contractors like Morley Construction.
Back to tourism. Indeed it is a big player in Santa Monica. The hotels in town provide great revenues for the city and a certain cache for the community. The retail trade in town provides for lots of individual boutiques and good tax generation. Some people like tourism because they think it a clean industry, though traffic noise and air pollution are serious consequences. Some people hate it because it brings in hordes of people that otherwise wouldn’t be here. They want Santa Monica to be a sleepy little beach town reserved for its residents. Those days are, unfortunately, over. As long as we sit along the Pacific Ocean and there are several million people to our east, we are going to have visitors – whether we like it or not. Looking at old photos of Santa Monica allows one to discern a “trend”; some photos from 100 years ago make our current situation seem calm. This is just the current manifestation of people enjoying our cool breezes, long beaches and wonderful vistas.
I personally enjoy wide-open spaces where one can hear the silence and enjoy the feel of unpolluted air on the cheek. I like being engulfed in wilderness, where I think clearly and feel deeply. But candidly, I am in the minority. In my own family, my wonderful New York mother-in-law LOVES being around people – in fact she thrives on it – and it is where she gets her energy. My father comes from Chicago and used to make fun of my wilderness tendencies. I make no value judgment on either choice, but for the City of Santa Monica the path seems well trodden and pretty clear; tourists are here to stay so we need to make provisions for them.