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Automotive Industry Council:

The Industry Council is a series of monthly meetings held by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, to identify common challenges and solutions facing different industries that contribute to the local economy. These informal meetings are hosted by members of the Chamber’s Business Roundtable, an influential cross-section of decision-makers in Santa Monica.

 Leaders of the automotive industry met at the Le Merigot hotel on February 18. This industry contributes roughly 20 percent of Santa Monica’s tax revenue but attendees reminisced of a time not that long ago when they contributed nearly 30 percent and pointed to the drop as a sign of the tough challenges facing their industry.

“Santa Monica cannot take your industry for granted,” said Rod Gould, Santa Monica’s City Manager, who attended the meeting along with Director of Planning and Community Development Eileen Fogarty.

Fogarty spoke and responded to a letter from the Santa Monica Auto Dealers Association (SMADA) that raised concerns with aspects of the final Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE).

Some of SMADA’s grievances were simply requests for wording clarifications or asking for changes in wording to allow for a more flexible interpretation.   Others were fixing outright errors. But “some aspects of the (SMADA) letter represent a different mindset and we need to get together to discuss these aspects,”Fogarty said. “We’ve got a really good start and we can go forward from here.”

The prominent topic of the meeting was the difficulty of operating in Santa Monica as an auto dealer. Bill Rinker, vice president of and general manager of Toyota and Scion dealerships  in Santa Monica, pointed out his industry has more ordinances that any other in the city.

“It’s expensive to do business in Santa Monica,” he said.

Rinker went on to discuss how manufacturers often take their events and specials to surrounding areas because of the difficulty of complying with Santa Monica’s ordinances.

“Flexibility is needed to help us help you,” said Bill Rehwald,  CFO of Hart Fullerton Leasing. 

Leaders went on to stress their wishes that the Interim Ordinances adopted by the City in April 2006, make the transition into the LUCE document to be finalized this summer.

“Please accept the Interim Ordinances; they were thoroughly thought out,” said Rinker.

Another topic discussed was exploring ways to sustain auto dealers, provide better means of expanding their businesses, and providing incentives to attract new dealers to locate in the City.

In that regard, industry leaders noted the decrease in dealerships that actually own the property their businesses operate on. With decreasing ownership, leaders discussed the importance of ordinances that incentivize owners to lease to dealers.

“The key is to create a healthy market for dealers with favorable ordinances,” said Chris Harding, partner at the law firm Harding Larmore Kutcher and Kozal.

Gould responded to these concerns in his closing remarks by saying that the City need s to fine-tune LUCE, make the process of property improvements streamlined and more predictable, and make sure that the Interim Ordinances make the jump into final LUCE.

“This is one out of a dozen industries that the city wants to help and grow,” Fogarty said. “This is an industry we want to go forward.”

Leaders also stressed the importance of affordable housing for workers, an issue discussed previously at the Industry Council for Restaurateurs,  on November 9, 2009. Many workers in Santa Monica cannot afford to live in the City and are forced to commute from elsewhere. The upcoming Light Rail system was mentioned as a project that would help, but not totally fix the problem.

“No one disagrees with the goal of getting affordable housing,” said Harding, “it’s about how you get there.”

All in all, both the leaders and the City officials expressed appreciation for one another’s time and on several occasions praised the value of meeting as an industry. Many leaders wondered why they haven’t met as a group more often and proposed further meetings.
Christopher Rosacker

Mirror Editorchris@smmirror.com

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