By Laura Freese, former San Juan Capistrano City Councilwoman
Improvement can be painful. The improvement project for the Interstate 5/Ortega Hwy interchange is going to hurt badly while under construction. But the City Council has taken a big step to help try to alleviate some of the pain for the existing businesses of the city.
Caltrans is in charge of the project. Their objective is to make the interchange an efficient transportation system; it is not their job to worry about the effects on the residents or the city’s businesses. Therefore, in October 2012, the City Council created the Economic Preservation Committee, which is to work with Caltrans and provide them with ideas for the protection of our existing businesses and to use as much muscle as needed to turn this project into a positive rather than a negative.
The Economic Preservation Committee is made up of local business and property owners, Chamber of Commerce representatives and council members who interact with representatives from Caltrans, the Orange County Transportation Authority and Supervisor Pat Bates’ office. Our goal is to work with Caltrans to promote the city and mitigate potentially devastating changes during the construction. It is also to shine a positive light on the city and remind people of our city’s virtues. For example, instead of a blank fence surrounding a closed gas station, we put up a banner that tells the story of a new entrance to the city being created and inviting all to our Mission, shops, restaurants and theaters. Instead of a dark and foreboding corner where the Jack in the Box once stood, we now have a banner and twinkle lights in the trees (We are looking for more funding to continue the twinkle lights further down Ortega Highway, if anyone would like to contribute).
Going forward, we are working with Caltrans and OCTA to get freeway signage, possibly bus wraps advertising San Juan Capistrano, magazine articles, full-page newspaper ads, possibly train ridership help and in-town trolleys to help move visitors into and throughout the town.
We are asking the city for help with more relaxed signage criteria, directional way-finding signs, engaging Associated Senior Action Program volunteers to act as hosts and hostesses for visitors, parking forgiveness and requesting the council to identify business preservation as a top council priority for the next two years.
We also want to bring in more activities to the city while the construction is underway. Residents and visitors alike have to realize that it is worth it to experience the history and fun of San Juan Capistrano.
Our businesses have tolerated incredible hardships in the last four years with the recession, continuous roadway projects and the loss of redevelopment money. They are as callused and beat up as experienced soldiers yet, like soldiers, they keep fighting until they succeed. To get through this next project, they are going to need the help of the Economic Preservation Committee and Caltrans, but more than anything, they are going to need the loyalty of the residents of the city. Support them. Even at the toughest of times, take a deep breath, put on a happy face and always shop locally.