Commentary: Atascadero’s strategic vision: Personal impressions

attended the recent two-day strategic planning session for the Atascadero City Council and staff. Here are some impressions. Mainly, I was hopeful. There seemed a genuine feeling of respect between Councilmembers, Mayor and staff, and the (sparse) public audience; a welcome contrast to previous years where ideological and personality clashes roiled the waters.

In future sessions, though, I hope much more citizen involvement is encouraged and the coming sessions more widely publicized. An advance survey requesting citizen’s ideas on the three or four most important goals for the City would be useful.

A dominant theme was the City’s very limited budget and consequently, how stretched the City’s dedicated and competent staff is. I hadn’t appreciated that the City’s revenue per capita is only half that of our northern neighbor and even less compared with our larger southern neighbor. Thus, every additional City task must take this into account, but we should make more use of the retiree volunteer talent in Atascadero.

Thus, much discussion centered on fiscal sustainability and the need to increase revenue. A key component of these goals is downtown revitalization and the Council seems committed to this.  Making optimum use of the Del Rio retail center and furthering the development of that vacant property will require effort and imagination.

A shift has occurred in staff and Council thinking from exclusive focus on retail sales as revenue enhancers toward recognizing the need for higher paying and Atascadero-based “head of household” jobs. With these will come more disposable income, more of which will be spent locally. This provides incentives to developers for more shopping, eating and entertainment opportunities.

Given the strong trend toward computer-based local office or home-based jobs, I strongly support expansion of the Chamber’s Bridgeworks Initiative. A strong corollary should be better broadband internet connectivity throughout the city, especially a spine along El Camino Real between downtown and Del Rio, making Atascadero a “hub” for such activity.

Other goals were discussed along with these primarily economic ones.  The vexing question of the homeless population came up and we all agree there is no simple fix. But it must be addressed as it adversely affects the effort at downtown revitalization. I understand the City is not equipped to lead on this issue, but they should play an active role in enabling co-operation among the non-profits involved. The task force on homelessness created by the Mayor and led by two Council members is an important first step.

In addition to two priority statements that deal with economics a third will “Ensure Comprehensive Safety Readiness and Risk Mitigation.”  These three will be presented to the Council for formal adoption. This third one reflects a recognition that changing weather patterns increase the risk of wildfire. We were informed that the Fire Department continues to improve readiness, but for a severe conflagration, we must realistically consider that portions of Atascadero may be overwhelmed, as we have tragically seen throughout the state. So, portions of our population may need to evacuate. As I urged in a previous column, local networks should be set up to monitor and assist those with limited mobility and alternate evacuation routes and ‘safe areas’ should be predefined. And, the public must be made aware of these plans. There was discussion of ways of overcoming public apathy regarding such preparedness. For example, declaring an “emergency preparedness week” in cooperation with the AUSD.

Less attention was paid to environmental issues than I would have liked. These include energy efficiency and sustainability practices, the former saving money for city and citizens alike and the latter appealing to the environmentally conscious young entrepreneurs considering locating here. A lot of time was spent wordsmithing on “decision criteria” and the ship of state almost ran aground on “sustainable” but was rescued by substituting “stewards resources.”

Another trend is the state-mandated increase in electric vehicles, so I’m glad more charging stations are being installed in the city. We should take advantage of Atascadero’s strategic halfway point between LA and San Francisco, inducing through traffic to stop and charge — and eat and shop, providing attractive places to do so.

I thought the most useful aspect of these sessions was the “breakout” groups where more detailed discussions of solutions took place. I would very much like to see these develop into Saturday half-day workshops focused on individual topics, perhaps with guest speakers. But held in more spacious venues and where it is easier to hear speakers. Perhaps churches or the Pavilion could be used.

I started on a hopeful note and will end on two additional ones: There was a lot of good-natured banter and I was delighted to see that “humor” is an accepted Council norm. And, most hopefully of all, the Mayor did not threaten to shut down City government if the Council declined to fund a wall around the Sunken Gardens.


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