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Finding oil in El Cajon

John Paul Getty once received a request from a magazine for a short article explaining his success. A check for 200 pounds was enclosed. The multimillionaire obligingly wrote: "Some people find oil. Others don't."

Over the past several years, El Cajon has experienced tremendous success in revitalizing its historic downtown core. While other communities continue to struggle with the thorny problem of redevelopment, El Cajon has not only blossomed, it has gained the momentum of a full-fledged juggernaut.

The secret of our success is simple: We have found oil in El Cajon. Not the liquid variety, to be sure, but a precious substance nonetheless. Our oil is the wholly unique partnership that exists between the city, property owners and businesses in El Cajon. This collaboration lubricates the complex machinery of success, and the collective effort finds its nexus in the El Cajon Community Development Corp.

In 1996, the city of El Cajon committed itself to transforming the city into a dynamic urban center. This decision was born from the efforts of hundreds of residents and business owners who worked side-by-side with city and county government to create a revitalization plan. What is now known as the El Cajon CDC was born, and it created bold and imaginative plans to revitalize downtown El Cajon.

Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the El Cajon CDC is a nonprofit, community-based organization formed to conduct comprehensive and managed community revitalization in downtown El Cajon. Its mission is to ensure the economic vitality of downtown El Cajon.

The city has given tremendous responsibility to the El Cajon CDC to coordinate the efforts of the downtown design review commission, meet with applicants of potential redevelopment projects, coordinate code enforcement efforts in the downtown area with city staff and to serve as an advocate for downtown businesses. In addition, the CDC manages an active affordable housing program and serves as a conduit for grants the city alone might not otherwise be eligible for -- especially in the areas of economic development and beautification.

Working through the El Cajon CDC, the city developed such much-needed infrastructural elements as a $50,000 parking study; the $200,000 Magnolia Ave Corridor Improvement Project plan, and the $200,000 Brownfields data base study. Each of these is vital to long-term quality redevelopment in the downtown area. In addition, through the El Cajon CDC, the city supports such functions as Façade Improvement Grants for downtown buildings, Business Retention & Relocation Grants to move businesses into the downtown area, and the CDC's Clean and Safe Program, which improves our downtown appearance though proactive security patrols, trash pickup, sidewalk cleaning and graffiti removal.

Special events organized by the El Cajon CDC, including the Cajon Classic Cruise Car Show, Concerts on the Green, Movies in the Park, Light up the Holidays, A Toast to Music and others attract several hundred thousand visitors to downtown El Cajon each year.

Our partnership has produced wonderful results. Downtown property values have increased more than 181 percent. Taxable sales have increased by 66 percent. Lease rates have increased by more than 56 percent. Customers shopping downtown have increased by 91 percent. More than 145 new businesses and 591 new jobs have been added to the downtown district. Nearly $50 million in public and private funds have been invested in downtown improvements since 1996.

Our downtown core has been transformed into a vibrant village center. In addition to new homes, new restaurants and new retail buildings already in place, construction of the New York Bakery project on Main Street is now complete. Construction of a new two-story office building is under way at Main and Ballantyne. Priest Development has commenced construction of a new 10,000-square-foot commercial center at the corner of Main & Magnolia, and is completing construction of Park Avenue, a new community of 103 Row Homes in the heart of downtown.

The city is currently reviewing adoption of the Downtown El Cajon Specific Plan -- a new master planning document that will define the future vision for the area, including the creation of unique downtown neighborhoods connected by public parks and pedestrian corridors. In addition, the city is reviewing the Magnolia Avenue Corridor Revitalization Plan that will re-energize this vital entryway into downtown El Cajon.

These improvements did not happen overnight. They are the result of tremendous vision, cooperation and a lot of plain hard work. The City Council and staff embraced new ideas and made them real. Residents demanded a new approach to redevelopment and have remained patient and steadfast in the pursuit of a revitalized downtown El Cajon. And the El Cajon CDC has taken on difficult, exceedingly complex assignments and has completed them with skill and professionalism.

Indeed, we have found oil in El Cajon, and the result is visible for all to see.

Carpenter is president and CEO of the El Cajon Community Development Corp.

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