Part Two With City Manager Laura Fischer

By Luke Phillips

The Holtville Tribune recently sat down with Holtville City Manager Laura Fischer to discuss the city’s accomplishments in 2009 and what the city is looking forward to in 2010. This is part 2 of a 2 part series:

TRIBUNE: What is the city doing to attract and retain new businesses?

LAURA FISCHER: We put in place a strategy last year that was really three-pronged. The first thing was to take a look at how our downtown and our business district – how our zoning codes really worked when you want to bring a new business into town. What are some of the stumbling blocks and the roadblocks that we would hit. We looked at that and we found that certain things really were restrictive like parking or set-back requirements and things because of the nature of the way this town was developed around the downtown square, which is an asset in our community, but it does pose some logistic problems.
So we revamped our zoning. Our development zoning. It’s called form-based code. It restricts certain development standards in some locations and it streamlines your permit process. And we piggybacked with that our downtown design. So what we did was we hired a firm in, and this was all done through grants by the way, it didn’t cost the city anything, but we hired an architecture firm to come in that did some designs of how they want the downtown area to look. We held many public meetings. We had a lot of public input. In those meetings, the community sort of decided what they want the face of the town to look like.
We put together a downtown design plan, a master plan, and that plan actually won an award up in our Southern California Association of Governments. So that was the second prong. The third prong is we received a grant for facade improvement. So we have a $300,000 grant that we’re going to give to businesses to make improvements to the front faces, or anything you can see from the public right-of-way, of their buildings.
We’re developing a Request for Proposals for a consultant to manage that program for us. We don’t have the staff to do it. So we have the three prongs. First we looked at the foundation and what you needed to do to come in, we streamlined that process. Then we said this is what we want the businesses to look like and what we want the town to eel like and sort of how we wanted tradition to keep. And third, we got a grant for money to help businesses come in and to attract them. So we had grants for the façade improvement. The city committed redevelopment agency money for façade improvement and then just last night we got we got another $300,000 in new business loans. So now it’s expanding business loans. So we’ve got a lot of money out there ready to pump into the community.
Right now it’s on my desk waiting to get the RFP submitted. I have authorization to do that and I just need to get out and get our consultants in to start managing those grants. I guess it was kind of timely that I’m behind because now we have another grant and I’m going to piggyback the two so I can get one consultant to handle the façade grants and at the same time those business loans.
So I think that’s a great approach. It’s a concept that won us an award. I think it’s real fundamental. It’s not just throwing money out there. It’s like how are we going to attract it, how are we going to retain it, and how are we going to improve what we already have? So we like that.

TRIBUNE: Do you think the city skate park will be finished in 2010?

LAURA FISCHER: Yes. They’re still kind of in flux and there’s still a lot of variables in that that can mess with my prediction. At this point council has selected a location, they’ve authorized me to go out and get an RFP. We’re waiting to find out what our capital improvement budget looks like and the reason we’re doing that is because of the public safety building as priority.
The cost is kind of moving because of the economy. We’re trying to come in with that public safety building when people are ready to bid low and we can get a good deal. But there are other projects that we have programmed over the next five years. We want to find out exactly where we are with the money for the skate park so that when we go out for Request for Proposals we don’t request something that we know is going to come in at the half-million dollar mark and we have less than that, or conversely we don’t want to bid something that is going to come in at $100,000 when we have more to spend.
So we kind of want to know where we’re at in our pocketbook before we go out and start looking at a Mercedes when we can buy a Volkswagen. That will change in January. Well, it might not change, but it could change. Then the RFP will be submitted. If it’s a design build, that could go pretty quick. I think that if they keep it at the same location where it is now, I think it’s going to be a fairly quick build. If you build it anywhere else and there’s a lot more infrastructure to install, I think it might take a little longer. Plus, the whole process of moving locations is going to be a long process.

TRIBUNE: The Sheriff’s Department is set to take over law enforcement duties in Holtville next year. Do you have any concerns?

LAURA FISCHER: I think any time you get into a new contract you want to make sure you monitor that closely and make sure you implement it in a manner that is going to be sustainable and it’s going to be protecting the community and the city’s best interest and our pocketbooks all at once. That’s a big transition and I want to make sure it’s done right. That’s my concern right now: That the transition is smooth and we implement policies and procedures that will be beneficial to Holtville.
I think it’s going to be great for our community. I think it’s something the sheriff and the smaller communities are going to be looking at because it’s economically difficult for small communities to maintain a police department that has all of the capabilities of a larger force. We really feel that the sheriff’s department is going to give us good service. I think it’s going to be good for us.

TRIBUNE: The city just received a completed market feasibility study for a water park in Holtville.
What do you think the chances are of a water park being built in here some day?

LAURA FISCHER: I think they’re low. The study showed that your return on investment margin for a water park is lower than a movie theater or retail. I think things will have to build up in the entire Imperial County before a developer or business is wanting to move in under such a low return on investment margin. I’m not saying it’s super low, but it isn’t in the double digits, according to this study. And if you’re a business owner wanting to come in and start a new business, your going to want your return on investments to be a little bit higher than that. Especially in this area and especially because you have kind of an unknown million people living on the other side of the border which you have no control and no real security on their economic status or their continued economic prosperity.
I think it could happen, I think it might happen within the next few years. I think it’s smart of any community to look into any way to attract new businesses. A water park is needed in the valley and needed in the region. Holtville is a great location. I just think this study shows that we’re not quite ready for it.

TRIBUNE: What is Holtville’s biggest asset?

LAURA FISCHER: I’m just going to say the people. You come here and you have the small town feel. You have the community itself. I think they’re all supportive of each other. They certainly come together in time of need.
Obviously I’m prejudiced, I was raised here, so this is a great town. That’s why people come back and why we live here. So I’d say the people.

TRIBUNE: What is Holtville’s biggest problem?

LAURA FISCHER: If your asking me what are the greatest challenges to running the city as city manager, I’d say we provide all of the services of a full function city and we run it on a real tight budget and we run it with very limited staff. And for the number of staff that we have, which is about 35, we do a lot. And that’s a challenge because we’re all kind of taxed to do a lot of different things.
When your a big city and you work in finance, you may be working in the same situation over and over. You may take bills from the left side of your desk and put them on the right side of your desk, but here you work in finance and your not only dealing with money, you’re dealing with public works, water, sewer, fire, trash. You deal with everything.
We all were multiple hats and that requires a lot of flexibility in our employees, a lot of knowledge and a lot of training. I think our staff does an excellent job
but I think that’s a challenge and I think it’s a challenge we’ve succeeded at.

TRIBUNE: What are you looking forward to most in 2010?

LAURA FISCHER: There are a lot of things we’re looking forward to. Getting a lot more grant money. We’ve been so successful in getting grant money and putting it to use for the community. I’d say we’re looking forward to the construction projects and the completion of those projects.
I’ve been here for four years and I want to build something. That’s been my thing: I want new business, I want to build something. We have new business and the water tank is almost completed so that’s been hitting a lot of goals for this community and this city council. They want to build it and they want new businesses and they’re getting it.