Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic challenges, Santa Maria is “holding up well,” with City Manager Jason Stilwell sharing both bright spots and bleak news on Wednesday.
Stilwell and Mayor Alice Patino provided the State of the City presentation — virtually, of course — during an annual event hosted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on the city in several ways, including economically, but Stilwell delivered more than grim news.
“There is proof that businesses and residents have confidence that things are going to get better,” Stilwell said.
He shared several community indicators about the mixed job and housing markets, some falling crime rates and busy construction activity, the latter of which falls in the good news category, Stilwell said.
“There’s activity happening across the city, and more projects are in the pipeline,” he said. “Activity did not slow down with the pandemic. We continued to see a lot of building permits and a lot of inspections occurring.”
Steady progress has occurred on new homes for the Toyota and Honda dealerships near Highway 101 and Battles Road.
The Central Coast Truck Center, for big rigs, is under construction on West Stowell Road and will bring several dozen new jobs to the city.
The Azure Apartment Homes complex at Battles Road and College Drive in Santa Maria has started leasing units, but construction is expected to continue through next summer. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)
In addition, a new dialysis center at the intersection of Donovan Road and Broadway may open by March.
On the housing front, some smaller projects have opened while the Azure Apartment Homes, with 318 units at Battles Road and College Drive, remains partially completed with some of the first residents moving in already. It should be fully done by next summer.
Accessory dwelling units, also known as in-law units or backyard cottages, continue to attract strong interest with approval of 140 this year alone, Stilwell said.
“That’s a remarkable number, but it is a much-needed housing resource,” Stilwell said. “I want to assure you that our building division staff are making sure that these are built to high-quality standards.”
While corporate decisions led to the closure of Hometown Buffet and Roadhouse Grill in the city, two others, Golden Corral and Mountain Mike’s Pizza, plan to open in The Crossroads shopping center. A Dutch Bros Coffee shop will open on North Broadway, and a Shaw’s restaurant is poised to reopen “any day now,” Stilwell said.
Meanwhile, violent crime is down 22 percent overall for the first nine months of 2020 compared with the previous year. While burglaries dropped from 283 in 2019 to 152 in 2020, vehicle thefts doubled, according to police data.
Record-low unemployment jumped to a record high when “along came the virus,” Stilwell said, explaining that it went from 3.8 percent in September 2019 to 16.9 percent in April 2020.
“Santa Maria’s unemployment rate continues to improve,” Stilwell said, adding that it was down to 7.8 percent as of August.
Throughout the pandemic, Santa Maria’s housing market remained strong with continued price appreciation, he said.
The median home selling price of $398,000 has grown 9 percent to $430,000 amid record-low mortgage rates.
“Across California, Santa Barbara County had the highest year-over-year gain in home price through August, soaring 41.7 percent, primarily due to a larger share of homes sold on the South Coast, according to the California Association of Realtors,” Stilwell said.
Additionally, the Central Coast posted a 16.4 percent increase in the median home price for 12 months ending in August.
Stillwell touted the three Ws — wearing masks, washing hands and watching out for social distancing.
Construction continues on one of two new homes for auto dealerships in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)
“The better job we do with stopping the spread of the virus, the better our chances at returning to normal,” Stilwell said, adding that it would lead to businesses hiring new people. “It’s really just people being able to adapt and recognize this virus is going to be with us for a while, and let’s try to work together to not make it easy for this virus to spread.”
Patino noted that city leaders have little say with orders coming from the state and public health officials.
COVID-19-related closures of businesses have taken a toll on city revenues, the mayor said.
“The city is losing literally millions of dollars, which it relies upon to provide services that we all want and need,” Patino said, calling for residents to support local businesses.
The pandemic added to the city’s budget challenges by inducing a sudden plunge in revenue and skyrocketing pension costs, leading to cutbacks and a hiring freeze, Stilwell said.
“The city cannot afford the size of its current workforce, and we must make staffing reductions,” Stilwell said. “Our focus as an organization must be one of resilience.”
Rules related to the pandemic have led to creative ways to deliver city services, such as the library adding online book clubs and reading challenges, and Recreation and Parks offering bubble soccer and drive-in bingo.
The mayor said Santa Maria’s best asset remains its residents.
“This past year will forever be a reminder of our community’s heart and spirit,” she said.