By Heidi Simmons
The Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce put on a party to celebrate the city, its residents and its future. With valet parking, a red carpet walk, Champagne, hors d’oeuvres and a party atmosphere, the message was clear, Desert Hot Springs has a bright future and good times are here.
“The State of the City is an important event, and we wanted to do it right,” said Heather Coladonato, President and CEO of the Desert Hot Springs chamber. “We have a lot to be proud of. We have new businesses and industry coming into town, and the community is open and excited about what’s next. We wanted to honor the city’s leadership and its residents with a special evening.”
Residents were given free admission and the event was filled to capacity with standing room only.
After serving six years on city council, Scott Matas was elected Mayor in November. He has lived in Desert Hot Springs since he was a kid. Matas began the evening by saying, “Tonight in our beautiful city, the future is here. The future is in Desert Hot Springs. It has not been an easy road to this point for our city, but we have learned from our predecessors and we are moving forward.”
He introduced and praised councilmembers Russell Betts, Joe McKee, Anayeli Zavala, Yvonne Parks and former councilmember Jan Pye for their hard work and efforts in keeping the city solvent and running.
For the last two years the city faced a fiscal emergency with a budget deficit that threatened to force the city into bankruptcy. Working diligently, the council managed to pull through by tightening budget items and cutting non-essential spending.
Where once the city employed 82 people, it now employs 19. In November 2014, the city’s coffers suffered a $6.2 million deficit. Today there is $5.3 million in the bank and the mayor says by the end of the year it will be over six million. He warned, “It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s on its way.”
Matas addressed the sensitive issue regarding keeping the local police department rather than contracting with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Remarking that the community’s response was significantly in favor of supporting the local police, Matas said that a “tentative” agreement had been reached to continue with the DHS PD. After a loud cheer from the audience, he stressed it was “tentative” but that he was confident the agreement would go through. Public safety is the city’s largest expenditure and officers have taken pay cuts of 22% and higher.
Desert Hot Springs Police Chief Dale Mondary addressed the crowd and reported that DHS was one of only two valley cities to have a decline in crime rate. He said the department was combining efforts with other law enforcement agencies to do regular raids to combat gang activity. Regarding the city’s parolees, Mondary said the department was going to use funds provided by AB109 to develop sports programs to help the parolees in the community.
Mondary reported that the department has benefited with the help of citizen volunteers. Their donated time added up to over 3,000 hours a value equated at $70,000.
“We are working smarter,” said Mondary. “We are making the best of our resources.” He finished by asking the community to get and stay involved. Mondary said, “We have great citizens here who help us get criminals off the street.”
City Manager Martin Magaña spoke to the group about Desert Hot Springs joining California’s strong culture and tradition by going into the agriculture business. This was his way of referencing the city’s initiative to be a leader in the marijuana cultivation business.
“We are at the forefront of changing the city,” said Magaña. “This industry is going to generate revenue. For a disadvantaged community, it’s going to turn it around and into a thriving, healthy community that can change the face of this entire region.”
Magaña showed a Power Point map with large swatches of red areas that represented the city’s cultivation sites. He said that nearly 1.7 million square feet are already zoned, and when he’s done, it will be close to two million square feet. However, the challenge for the city is creating an infrastructure and supplying utilities like water and electricity. Magaña hopes to hire an administrator who will deal directly with the applicants to move the growing projects forward.
Desert Hot Springs currently has four opened medicinal marijuana dispensaries and has approved a total of 19, which is the number of applications the city received. Magaña believes the marijuana business will help the city reach short-term economic stability as well as aid in the long-term growth of the city. He appeared confident that the marijuana business will bring jobs and increase the local housing demand.
Mayor Matas came back on stage after Magaña to finish his presentation acknowledging the event was getting long, but that there were other important issues he still wanted to be sure to cover.
Some of those significant items included the building of a Walmart. The Walmart Corporation owns 15 acres on Palm Drive and has guaranteed the Mayor that they will decide by the end of this year if Walmart will move forward and build a 160 thousand square foot store. Architectural renderings showed the store set back on the property with smaller stores toward the street.
Matas highlighted: the bold art installations on the main thoroughfares, three new housing developments, which are under construction, the groundbreaking of Angel View’s new distribution center, an AQMD solar project to take city buildings off the grid, a new – long overdue and highly anticipated – library, and additional hotel rooms coming on line soon which will add to the city’s Transit Occupancy Tax.
Referring to a map, Matas showed how Desert Hot Springs will benefit from the recently added Sand to Snow National Monument, a 154 thousand acres on the south-west edge of the city. With this new monument and Joshua Tree National Forest directly north of the city, Matas was enthusiastic about the great hiking and then the fabulous “soaking” in the city’s award-winning healing, natural hot springs.
Matas encouraged more community involvement and praised those who work hard at providing the city with fun things to do and entertaining events adding, “There’s plenty to do here.”
Finishing the State of the City address, Matas said to the community, “DHS, stand tall, stand strong and respect one another.”
The evening a success, the Mayor shared that he and the council are working together to build a strong and solid future for the “city on the hill.”
“This year’s State of the City “white tent” event was the largest in attendance with nearly 300 guests,” said Coladonato. “Residents, business owners, investors and elected officials all experienced an evening unlike any other in the city. It was a true celebration of the future of Desert Hot Springs.”