Watsonville City Council contest opens amid huge challenges for downtown
Watsonville City Council candidate Jimmy Dutra, a realtor and small-business owner, has a vision for his hometown of Watsonville. He says he wants it to be more “business-friendly.” He wants to develop incentives and seek out suitable businesses for the city that will provide sustainable jobs.
Dutra, who’s running against Eduardo Montesino in District 4, opposed a new McDonald’s restaurant—the city’s third—that’s slated for the border of the city’s historic downtown. It’s a project that raised opposition from many in the community, and was ultimately cleared to proceed by the City Council during a packed Oct. 14 meeting.
Dutra and fellow candidate Rebecca Garcia, who’s running for District 5 against councilmember Daniel Dodge, are the only two non-incumbents in this year’s Watsonville City Council election, and the two share similar views on some topics.
Both want more technology companies to come to the city, and say they envision the empty Gottschalks building on Main Street being transformed into a Cruzio-type coworking facility. But it’s not all about the empty Gottschalks building, Garcia says. Economic development, she stresses, needs to be more than just finding another retailer. As a former educator, she sees a need to work with the local school district and Cabrillo College to build an educated, in-demand workforce.
There is talk of economic recovery and job growth across the country, but the reality in Watsonville is different.
The city’s unemployment rate has dipped to 15.8 percent from a high of 30.7 percent in February 2010. But that is still much higher than Santa Cruz’s rate of 6 percent or the state’s 7.4 percent—all figures from July. Meanwhile, Watsonville continues to shut most city offices on “Furlough Fridays,” a cost-saving measure implemented in 2009. And the city staffer in charge of economic development works only half-time.
The Great Recession hit the city hard. Some would even say Watsonville never fully recovered in the 1980s from the loss of its canneries—an industry that provided union jobs, stability and opportunities for low-skilled workers to own homes and raise their families in relative comfort.
The city’s downtown commercial district, now the subject of a multi-pronged, public-private revitalization effort, was effectively destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake 25 years ago and has been reincarnated in various forms ever since. The loss of the city’s redevelopment agency in 2011 (one of 400 agencies disbanded statewide) was also a major blow that hampered Watsonville’s ability to counter blight and support new construction and urban renewal.
On Sept. 23, the Watsonville City Council approved the designs and conceptual plan of a downtown improvement scheme.
Watsonville economic development manager Kurt Overmeyer says the plan “demonstrates what downtown can be.” It calls for a major restructuring of a segment of Main Street stretching from Riverside Drive to Beach Street and would trim the busy thoroughfare from four lanes to two with streetscape improvements, textured crosswalks and widened sidewalks that would include some greenery and maybe benches.
Overmeyer says the streetscape improvements are “just the first phase in a much larger reimagining of downtown.”
While the city council capped this phase at $550,000, Dutra feels this latest expenditure is a gamble and could leave the city in the lurch if they do not find enough private funds or grants to complete the project.
In the Field
At the pumpkin patch he operates just outside the city, Dutra is taking a break from the campaign trail to unload a truck of newly arrived pumpkins. Dutra, who was born and raised in Watsonville, is his usual enthusiastic self in the patch but admits that campaigning for almost a year straight—first for Santa Cruz County Supervisor for District 4—has been exhausting.
Dutra was unsuccessful in that first contest during the primary elections, placing third in June, and leaving former Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina to duke it out in November’s runoff against incumbent Greg Caput. That did not diminish his motivation to move Watsonville forward as an elected official.
Coming from an agricultural family in the Pajaro Valley and endorsed by the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, Dutra hopes to be a bridge from the city to a billion-dollar agricultural industry that felt dinged by last year’s failed Measure T. That proposal would have amended Watsonville’s urban limit line to allow for the annexation of farm land for other uses on Riverside Drive.
“We need to embrace it,” he says, of local agriculture.
Garcia, a retired educator and school administrator—also endorsed by the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau—says there needs to be more of an effort by the City Council to work with the ag industry, area schools and local universities to promote high-wage agricultural jobs.
“There is more to agriculture than picking, irrigating and trucking,” says Garcia. “There are human resources professionals, accountants, engineers, scientists—we just need to train and educate them to get those jobs.”
The contest between Dodge and Garcia in the fifth district is an interesting one, as the two are former allies. They worked together on a lawsuit to bring district elections to Watsonville in the 1980s. Later, Councilmember Dodge appointed Garcia to the Parks and Recreation Commission and the 2010 Redistricting Task Force.
Garcia also signed the petition to get Measure T on the ballot, believing it was important for the city to decide on issues of growth for itself. However, she did not agree with the City Council’s timing of the election, believing the $62,000 to hold a special election in June 2013 was a waste of public funds. The measure was soundly defeated when it got just 24 percent at the polls.
For his part, Councilmember Daniel Dodge, who championed the controversial proposal, is unapologetic and a bit fed up with hearing about Measure T. “I have not heard any complaints from my district,” he says. “‘At least you tried,’ they say.”
City councilmember Montesino, who is competing with Dutra, did not respond to requests for comment. City councilmember Nancy Bilicich is running unopposed for re-election in District 7.
As California voters try to muster up enthusiasm for the mid-term elections on Nov. 4, hotbed issues could generate a flurry of excitement locally in Watsonville. But especially for first-time city council candidates, like Dutra and Garcia, getting their supporters to the polls may be the biggest challenge.
As Election Day draws nearer, city council candidates are taking their final walks and hoping the lively conversations they have with their district neighbors will be enough to compel them to vote.
City Councilmember Dodge, who is being challenged by Garcia in District 5, says he is “concerned about low turnout.” The city has a remarkably low number of registered voters—only 14,636 out of a population of 52,477, and District 5 has 1,862 of those voters.