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Commerce Fights ‘Blighted’ Image With Clean Up Effort

The lightly-traveled industrial street behind the Citadel Outlets in Commerce is where seventeen-year-old Nicholas Lucero usually practices his driving.

But last Saturday at 7am, Lucero, who would usually be sleeping, was practicing his street sweeping skills in the name of civic pride.

He was part of a group of 30 or so “volunteers” from the local church, the boy’s water polo team and the city’s teen center, who came out to clean up Telegraph Road and Smithway Street, as well as several smaller cross streets.

Read this story IN SPANISH: Ciudad de Commerce Combate Imagen ‘Deteriorada’ Con Esfuerzo de Limpieza [1]

While not exactly the local park or a community center, the commercial corridor where the outlet and the Commerce Casino are located, is the first thing many people see when they arrive in the City of Commerce.

By coming out to brighten up the streets, Lucero feels he is helping his city, while at the same time raising some money for youth programs at his church, St. Marcellinus.

“It’s for a greater cause,” Lucero said.

Citadel owner Steve Craig is looking to get rid of the “blighted” image often associated with the industrial city, and offered to give each organization $100 for every volunteer taking part in the clean-up.

On Saturday, twelve members of Commerce’s boy’s water polo team were out raising money for a trip to a tournament in Hawaii. It was a challenge that they had no problem taking on. “We’re used to working in a team,” said their coach Luis Flores.

Commerce boy's water polo team pitch in to clean up streets around the Citadel Outlets.

While the poor economy and ever-tightening city budgets have only recently begun to highlight the important link between city services and businesses in municipalities across the nation, the role of businesses are never far from the minds of Commerce’s residents.

Revenues from the Commerce Casino and the Citadel Outlets make up more than half of Commerce’s city budget, with budget decisions often being made while tracking sales tax numbers coming in from the two entities.

Meanwhile, Commerce’s residents enjoy a litany of free or low cost city services and recreational programs that even after budget cuts would be the envy of residents in Beverly Hills, city officials have said. According to Councilman Robert Fierro,“businesses are the reason why we exist, why we have our top notch programs.”

St. Marcellinus and Teen Center youth volunteers pitched in last Saturday to clean up the streets around the Citadel. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

And that is why several of the council members and a few top city officials were at the clean up on Saturday, “getting a little sweaty,” he added.

The clean up is officially part of the city’s “Keep Commerce Beautiful” program, but Fierro said it is also a message to businesses that “they are not alone,” and the city council, made up of residents, is interested in a closer partnership with the business community.

One of the city’s tighter partnerships is with Craig, whose development and management company, Craig Realty Group, specializes in retail outlets.

Not only does he have big plans for the Citadel, which he says is not only growing, but doing extremely well in a tough economy, Craig has also signed on to be the developer of a major redevelopment project on Telegraph Road.

Craig got a “wakeup call” when the California Travel and Tourism Commission rejected his application to locate Los Angeles’ first “California Welcome Center” in Commerce. According to Craig, the commission said the area was in a “state of decline and blight, and is not a representation of California.”

Clean up in progress at last Saturday's all day clean up of the area surrounding the Citadel Outlets.

Though they attract 10 million people a year, many of them visitors from around the world looking for a good deal on name brand consumer products, it has not been easy to convince others that this incorporated industrial city near East Los Angeles is a tourist destination.

With the nearby railroads and industrial park setting, things like graffiti, potholes, and the occasional wayward shrubbery only add to the blighted image. Craig says he has been doing his own cleanup of the surrounding streets for several years now, but this is the first time there was a concerted “public-private partnership” between businesses and the city.

Though the 6.6 square mile city has a relatively small population at 12,000 residents, it is also home to more than 1,600 businesses and 41,000 people who come to work there.

Craig says an urban area like Commerce may not be as “pristine as Napa,” but it does not mean that the city, which has infrastructure that makes it integral to international trade, is not an important destination.

He thinks the city can overcome its image, possibly by putting up some decorative elements to “soften the edges” of the industrial city, and make others see that Commerce can be “well-scrubbed” and “well-manicured.”