Bell Gardens Forced to Sell Shopping Centers

February 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Before Ross, Marshall’s, Starbucks and Petco opened their doors in Bell Gardens, the area around Florence Boulevard and Eastern Avenue was nothing more than a collection of vacant lots and rundown buildings.

Drugs and crime were prevalent in the area, which also happened to be home to one of the largest adult bookstores in the region. The city tried unsuccessfully for years to close the store down, but in the end, redevelopment money is what pushed out the store and it’s undesirable customers, Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP.

Lea este artículo en Español: Bell Gardens es Forzada a Vender Centros Comerciales

Today, two busy shopping centers sit at the intersection of Florence and Firestone, drawing thousands of customers from Bell Gardens and surrounding cities to spend their money in the southeast city. It’s been a vast improvement on many fronts for the predominately working-class southeast city, from providing jobs to shopping convenience and revenue for city services.

But now, Bell Gardens is being forced to sell off the Los Jardines and Village Square Shopping Centers and to give 91% of the money generated from the sale to the state. It’s part of a negotiated settlement reached in the aftermath of Gov. Jerry Brown’s and State Legislators’ disbanding of the 400 or so redevelopment agencies across California.

For decades, redevelopment agencies (RDA) helped cities like Bell Gardens revitalize their communities by providing funds for projects ranging from affordable housing to commercial developments and government facilities. Funding for RDA came from loans from the cities themselves, bonds and property taxes generated by the agency’s investments.

“If you look at these shopping centers [in Bell Gardens] there’s a possibility none of these would be here without the RDA,” Wagner points out.

Facing a crippling budget deficit, the governor and state leaders in 2011 decided to eliminate all of California’s redevelopment agencies and keep the in state coffers. “With the stroke of a pen,” cities, already struggling with tight budgets due to the recession, saw their funds to combat blight wiped out, Wagner said.

Brown argued that the state could no longer afford to finance the agencies and insisted the money would be better spent on school districts and county services.

An audit at the time by State Controller John Chiang found widespread accounting and reporting discrepancies at 18 RDAs across the state, fueling support for shutting down locally run redevelopment agencies. The audit found examples of spending abuses and Chiang questioned the effectiveness of RDA’s mission to combat blight.

The policy shift stopped new money from coming in for redevelopment and required that any money still in the redevelopment agencies and city-owned properties purchased with redevelopment funds be liquidated and turned over to the state.

Local municipalities criticized the decision and tried to stop the change, but failed.

In the years since, cities across California have been negotiating with the Dept. of Finance – charged with reviewing any transactions by the now defunct RDAs – to protect their investments.

Finally, “we’ve had to bite the bullet,” City Attorney John W. Lam told EGP.

Bell Gardens must now sell seven of its RDA-owned properties, including the two shopping centers and a cell tower located on one of the properties.

The shopping centers and cell tower generate $250,000 annually in ground lease revenue for the city.

“That number may not sound like a lot, but for a city of our size that will have an impact to our services,” said Community Development Director Abel Avalos.

The Los Jardines Shopping Center, located in the 7000 block of Eastern Avenue in Bell Gardens, is home to dozens of stores that draw thousands of shoppers to the area. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The Los Jardines Shopping Center, located in the 7000 block of Eastern Avenue in Bell Gardens, is home to dozens of stores that draw thousands of shoppers to the area. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Wagner told EGP the damage could have been a lot worse; “in the millions” of dollars, he said.

At one point the firehouse, police department parking lot and neighborhood youth center were all on the chopping block. In the end it was determined those properties and two additional city-owned parking lots are for governmental use, exempting them from the sell-off.

“The best case scenario would have been to keep all the properties, but we believe we protected the majority of our assets.”

“I believe Bell Gardens was a model for redevelopment agencies,” Wagner said, calling the loss of funds a “great loss” to cities like Bell Gardens that used its funds as intended, to build much-needed affordable housing and to replace blighted areas with thriving businesses.

Primestor Inc. developed the Bell Gardens shopping centers and will have first dibs on purchasing the ground leases.

Wagner says the city has a good relationship with Primestor and is confident the developer will purchase the property.

Avalos told EGP the city has received a few informal inquiries about an RDA property on the 5000 block of Shull Street, which could be used for either light manufacturing or higher density housing. The remaining properties would be sold for commercial development, he added.

Bell Gardens will get just over 9 percent of the sales revenue, but will continue to receive sales tax and property tax. The money being lost could have gone back to the community, Lam said.

Any ambitious plans the city had for revitalization may no longer happen, cautions Avalos.
There’s no more money for affordable housing, stressed Lam.

According to Wagner, the city will also take a big financial hit on the $30 million it initially invested as seed money for the redevelopment agency back in the 1970s, since it doesn’t appear that the state will reimburse municipalities any time soon for their loans to the agencies. That money is owed to the local taxpayers, he said.

A little over half of the city’s initial investment has been paid back over the years, but there’s still about $14 million owed to the city’s General Fund, according to city Finance Director Will Kaholokula.

The interest they originally agreed to will also not be honored, instead capped at 10 percent.

“The governor said ‘sorry cities, too bad…you’ll get your money last,’” said Lam, explaining it could take 50 years for the state to pay the entire amount back.

Now the city is tasked with bringing in developers to privately fund projects.
According to Wagner, it’s something the city has done before and will do again.

“The loss of tax money developments will not stop Bell Gardens from attracting business to the city.”


Twitter @nancyreporting

Bell Gardens Walmart Closing

January 21, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

When a Walmart Neighborhood Market opened in Bell Gardens in 2012, a marching band led the grand opening ceremony. Local residents and city officials welcomed the retailer with open arms.

On Tuesday, just days following the company’s announcement that it would close 7 stores by the end of the month in Southern California, including the Bell Gardens store, loyal customers said they are not ready to say goodbye.

“I’m going to miss it,” said Maria Desiderio, 68. “It was so close to me I would walk here for my groceries.”

Lea este artículo en Español: Walmart de Bell Gardens Cierra sus Puertas

Walmart is closing 269 locations globally as part of a company-wide restructuring. In addition to Bell Gardens, local closures include stores in Long Beach, Altadena, Carson, Hawaiian Gardens, San Bernardino and Baldwin Hills and Chinatown, which closed Sunday.

The Bell Gardens Walmart location at the Los Jardines Shopping Center in the 6800 block of Eastern Avenue will close Jan. 28.

According to Walmart, most of the 90 part-time and full-time employees from the Bell Gardens store will be reassigned to a nearby location. Wal-Mart spokesperson Delia Garcia told EGP that there are four stores within 6 miles and Bell Gardens employees will receive preferential hiring at those locations.

A sign posted outside the Bell Gardens Walmart Neighborhood Market says will be closing next week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A sign posted outside the Bell Gardens Walmart Neighborhood Market says will be closing next week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Employees who have not been placed in new jobs by Feb. 10 will receive 60 days pay. If after that 60 days they still have not been placed in new jobs, they will receive a severance package equal to one week’s pay for every year they have been with the company, Garcia said.

News of the impending closure came as a surprise to Bell Gardens Community Development Director Abel Avalos who told EGP the city was not given any advanced notice.

“It wasn’t as if the store was underperforming,” Avalos said.

He emphasized that Walmart generated $35,000 in sales tax revenue annually for the city, calling the amount impressive given that most grocery items are not taxable.

“In no way should this reflect that this community could not support that store,” he stressed.

On Tuesday, lines at the store were long and shopping carts full as residents took advantage of the 25 percent closeout discounts being offered.

“They really had good prices and good people,” lamented Bell Gardens resident Rosa Alvarez, telling EGP she shopped there twice a week.

Garcia would not disclose finances for any individual store, but told EGP the Bell Gardens location had undergone the same scrutiny as all the other stores.

Closing stores is commonplace in the retail industry, she said, adding that Walmart has closed fewer stores than many of its competitors in recent years.

“Closing stores is never an easy decision, but it is necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future,” Wal-Mart Stores Inc. President/CEO Doug McMillon said in a press release. “It’s important to remember that we’ll open well more than 300 stores around the world next year. So we are committed to growing, but we are being disciplined about it.”

There’s a potential bright side to the situation for the city, Avalos told EGP.

When the Neighborhood Market opened three years ago the newly opened Bicycle Casino hotel was not a reality, he said.

“We can see this as an opportunity to reach out to [higher tax generating] retailers” who could see the advantages of being located so close to the hotel, Avalos said.

City staff has already reached out to Primestor – the property owner – to begin the process of looking for a business to take over the 30,000 square-foot site.

The location is comparable in size to the Ross and Marshalls stores located across the street from the shopping center. Both stores produce substantial sales tax revenue for the city; the Bicycle Casino is the city’s top sales tax generator.

Avalos noted the potential for possibly splitting the space to allow apparel companies and large chain restaurants like Home Town Buffet or Golden Corral to share the site.

“It comes down to finding a retailer that will fill the space and be a complimentary use,” he said.
Residents, however, point out that Walmart’s closing will reduce the number of grocery stores in the city down to two.

“I may just drive to another Walmart outside the city to get groceries,” said Alvarez in Spanish.

Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez acknowledged that at just 2.5 square miles in size, the city doesn’t have the large plots of land big box retailers want, but proudly pointed out the number of national brand stores that can be found in the small blue-collar city. She does not expect the city to have trouble filling the vacancy.

“We are sad to see Walmart go, but sometimes change brings a new opportunity.”


Twitter @nancyreporting

Walmart Closes Seven SoCal Locations

January 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Seven Walmart stores in Southern California will be among 269 locations closed across the globe as part of a company-wide restructing, the discount retailer announced today.

“Actively managing our portfolio of assets is essential to maintaining healthy business,” Wal-Mart Stores Inc. President/CEO Doug McMillon.

“Closing stores is never an easy decision, but it is necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future. It’s important to remember that we’ll open well more than 300 stores around the world next year. So we are committed to growing, but we are being disciplined about it.”

About 16,000 employees are expected to be impacted by the closures.

There are nearly 11,600 Walmart stores around the world, ranging from smaller Walmart Express stores to Neighborhood Markets, Walmarts, Walmart Supercenters and Sam’s Club warehouse outlets.

Stores that will be closed in Southern California will be Walmarts at 151 E. Fifth St. in Long Beach, effective Jan. 28, and at 4101 Crenshaw Blvd. in Baldwin Hills, effective Sunday.

Five Walmart Neighborhood Markets will also be closed: 2408 Lincoln Ave., Altadena; 6820 Eastern Ave., Bell Gardens; 701 W. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Chinatown; 12120 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens; and 2045 Highland Ave., San Bernardino.

Those five stores will close Jan. 28, with the exception of the Chinatown store, which will close Sunday.

Delia Garcia of Walmart said about 1,100 employees will be affected by the closure of the seven Southern California stores.

“For all associates, the goal is to support our associates throughout the transition and provide opportunities to transfer to nearby stores,” Garcia told City News Service.

She noted that most of the stores being closed are located within six miles of four other Walmart locations.

She also said that while the stores will be closing by Jan. 28, most employees will likely continue working until Feb. 10 while stores are dismantled and merchandise is removed.

Employees who have not been placed in new jobs by Feb. 10 will receive 60 days pay. If after that 60 days they still have not been placed in new jobs, they will receive a severance package equal to one week’s pay for every year they have been with the company, Garcia said.

Garcia also said seven new Walmart stores are expected to open in California over the next year, and two existing stores will be expanded – moves that are expected to create about 1,000 jobs.

Bell Gardens to Count Homeless

January 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Volunteers will be canvassing the city of Bell Gardens for homeless living on the streets, parks or cars as part of the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, officials announced.

City personnel, members of the police department, neighborhood watch and the police explorers will conduct the count Jan. 26 to assist the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

Volunteers will document the number of homeless persons they locate without making physical contact, according to the city. The goal is to obtain an estimate of the unsheltered population in the city.

When completed, the tally will be forwarded to LAHSA, which uses numbers to advocate for aid and measures to address the local homelessness in the community.

Bell Gardens Community Development Director Abel Avalos told EGP the last homeless count in the city by LAHSA in 2011 estimated 195 homeless persons.

Residents who are aware of specific locations where transients typically reside are asked to contact Officer Victor Ruiz of the Bell Gardens Police Department at or by calling him at (562) 806-7600.

Recognizing the ‘Best of Best’

December 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Every Sunday for the past year Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia has recognized acts of kindness by an individual or positive impacts by a group in her district that often go unnoticed. Now, the assemblywoman will pay an extra tribute to the “best of the best” in the 58th District.
From a man who picks up trash along the riverbed to an environmental justice group fighting a toxic polluter, every week constituents in her east/southeast area district — encompassing the cities of Artesia, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Cerritos, Commerce, Downey, Montebello, Norwalk and Pico Rivera —vote online for the nominee to be recognized by Garcia’s #Pride58 Community Recognition Program.
“It was really important for us to tell our own story, not what was drawn out by the negative publicity in our area,” Garcia told EGP, referring to the corruption scandals in southeast communities that at times dominated news headlines.
The assemblywoman hopes to end the year honoring the community’s favorites. A special dinner gala will be held in mid January at the Bell Gardens Bicycle Casino Hotel to announce and recognize the #Pride58 “Best of the Best” award recipients.

The Commerce-based nonprofit East Yards Community For Environmental Justice is one of the recipients of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia’s #Pride58 award.  (Office of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia)

The Commerce-based nonprofit East Yards Community For Environmental Justice is one of the recipients of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia’s #Pride58 award. (Office of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia)

Constituents were allowed to vote once a day until Tuesday for a recipient in in each of the following categories: Helping Hand, Outstanding Community Impact Award, Leaders of Tomorrow, Honor Roll and Partner of Progress.
“We are looking to recognize the positive work being done in our community often behind the scene that is improving the lives and the conditions of our neighbors and fellow citizens,” Garcia said.
#Pride58 awardees in the running include Daisy Gomez, 25, of Montebello who opened an outlet store and often provided her extra sweaters and blankets to the homeless. Robert Lopez of Montebello was also honored earlier this year when he was nominated by a neighbor who saw Lopez walk along Bluff Road every Saturday picking up trash and mowing down weeds.
“I’ve lived on Bluff Road most of my life, and I can honestly say, Robert Lopez is the only person I have ever seen who cares enough about our neighborhood,” said his neighbor De Anne Susino.
Pastor Richard Jarman of TouchPoint Church was recognized for his work at the Bell Gardens faith-based council. Jarman has been providing food, clothing and beds for needy families and children in foster care. He also worked with the Southeast Community Development Corporation to coordinate and establish a computer lab at the church.
Commerce-based East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, an organization that advocates for a safe and healthy environment was one group recognized earlier this year. EYCEJ brought environmental and air quality issues to the forefront in Commerce, Bell Gardens and the Eastside.
Mark Lopez, Director of EYCEJ, told EGP the award demonstrates the local assemblywoman is in in touch with what is happening on the ground. He considered the recognition an important part of relationship building and an invitation to work together, he added.
“A lot of times we don’t get recognized,” Lopez explained. “Corruption in the area will get attention but the good community building taking place often does not.”

Preparing for El Niño Power

December 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

When El Niño weather conditions hit Southern California during the 1980s and 90s, freeways were jammed, neighborhoods flooded, power lines toppled and homes were damaged by the deluge of rain pounding the Southland for days without end.
Now, with the strong probability of an El Niño repeat performance this winter, federal, state and local officials are preparing for the “worst case scenario.”
On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 9 office released a Severe El Niño Disaster Response Plan for California, Arizona and Nevada. The agency also announced creation of a task force to identify issues, gaps and shortfalls to enhance the plan.

Lea este artículo en Español: Preparándose para la Fuerte Tormenta de El Niño

FEMA’s release states that one in five Californians lives in an area at risk of flooding. “All 58 counties in California have experienced at least one major flood event in the last 20 years.”
“Utilizing a ‘whole community’ approach to emergency management reinforces the fact that FEMA is only one part of our nation’s emergency management teams,” said Bob Fenton, FEMA Region 9 Administrator. “The exercise gives us an opportunity to learn from each other, and from experts in the areas where solutions will come from.”
As the federal agency is preparing for increased rainfall, heavy snow and high tides caused by unusually warm temperatures near the equator, local municipalities are also making preparations of their own for the strong El Niño weather expected to hit in the coming months.


The Los Angeles River may not be as empty in the coming months as scientists predict California and other states will be impacted by El Niño weather. (Photo by Fred Zermeno)

The Los Angeles River may not be as empty in the coming months as scientists predict California and other states will be impacted by El Niño weather. (Photo by Fred Zermeno)

Bell Gardens
The relatively flat city of Bell Gardens does not have to worry about landslides however the possibility of flooding has city officials concerned.
Like in most cities in Los Angeles County residents can pick up sandbags at the city yard and at the local Los Angeles County Fire department.
One area the city will be vigilant in particular is the lake at Ford Park. Though Public Works Director Chau L. Vu says the city has not had any issues with flooding at the location the department plans to continue staffing personnel to monitor the lake and other areas of concern following a storm.
“We canvass and patrol neighborhoods after rain to check on trees and branches that may have been taken down by the wind,” Vu explained.
Vu says Bell Gardens has been proactive year-round and kept up with the maintenance of storm water drains. The ongoing attention has paid off, as there has not been a sewer break in recent years.
Vu told EGP she is surprised that her office has not received calls from residents or business concerned with the possible winter storm.
“I think people may be skeptical about El Niño,” she said.
But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Weather Administration there is a 95 percent chance California will experience El Niño weather conditions this winter.
Vu plans to send out a list to residents with tips on what homeowners can do to reduce the chance of flooding including clearing out gutters.
“We plan on beefing up our patrolling during this wet weather.”

The city of Vernon’s Fire, Public Health and Public Works department also sent out its own list of storm recommendations to the city’s 1,800 business and all residential households. The mailer was accompanied by the county’s brochure on El Niño.
Vernon’s Public Works Director Kevin Wilson told EGP the city has good drainage on its streets and the Department has been consistently cleaning its entire inventory of city-owned and county-owned catch basins to reduce the potential of flooding during torrential rain events, he added.
“We typically only have some minor localized flooding during major rainfall events,” he said.
The almost exclusively industrial city wants its unique businesses community to be prepared. For businesses that may need an extra level of protection to their property in the event of rising water during winter rainstorms the city is providing sand and bags needed to make sandbags at the city’s fire stations and public works yards.
One of many things businesses must do is make sure they clean their roof sappers, emphasized Wilson.
If they don’t have their drainers cleaned that can lead to their roof collapsing which bring down sprinklers and ruins inventory, he explained.
“We need to be vigilant of that because that is always our number one problem,” said Wilson.
The close proximity to the Los Angeles River is something that Vernon must also consider.
Although Vernon Fire Chief Michael Wilson says the river has never overflowed the department has trained extensively every winter on swift water rescue.
The group of firefighters that compromise Vernon’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) squad is rated Type 1 Heavy Rescue, the highest certification awarded for USAR by the State of California Emergency Management Agency (CAL EMA). USAR is a multi hazard disciple utilized for a variety of emergencies or disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, terrorist activities and hazardous material releases.
The squad has seen all kinds of strange things come down the river that starts in Glendale including trucks, dogs and people, he added.
But the Fire Chief tells EGP he has yet to see the river overflow in the last 28 year he’s been with the city.
He also points out that the river is also crucial to getting the excess water out of the city.
“During the 97 El Niño it got high but never got over the bridge, it was definitely running extremely fast.”

El Niño is expected to bring heavy levels of snow to Southern California Mountains (EGP Photo by Fred Zermeno)

El Niño is expected to bring heavy levels of snow to Southern California Mountains (EGP Photo by Fred Zermeno)

Torrential rains have in the past caused flooding in Commerce, causing traffic nightmares for commuters near some of the region’s busiest freeways, the 5 and the 710, and along railway overpasses.
Over the last few weeks, the city has been holding meetings to address potential trouble spots before the rain begins.
Sump pump stations have been installed in four major areas prone to flooding: Garfield Avenue and Ferguson Street; Washington Boulevard and I-5 freeway; Atlantic Boulevard and Sheila Street; and Eastern Avenue and South of Commerce Way.
“The sump pumps collect the water and then send it away to the storm drain,” explained Matthew Rodriguez, director of safety and community services.
“We ordered 48 additional barricades and 18 ‘flooded’ signs” to be placed in flood areas once they are targeted, he added.
Rodriguez said the city’s public works department has already inspected the roofs of all city-owned buildings to make sure they can withstand the heavy rains and found the Bristow Park center and library to be in need of immediate repair.
Public works Director Maryam Babaki told EGP completely replacing the roof will cost half a million dollars, noting that funding has not yet been committed. In the meantime, she said, the most damaged areas will be patched to get the facility through the rainy season and until funding can be secured.
According to Rodriguez, Commerce will refer the estimated 60 homeless people in the city to the Salvation Army’s 70-bed shelter in nearby Bell or connect them with the People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) agency in Los Angeles.
The city has also urged residents to clean rain gutters and drains to avoid roof collapses and flooding. Other precautions include the distribution of as many as 5,000 sandbags, 10 per address by January.
There were 1,000 sandbags given out last week alone, according to Ernie Fierro, assistant emergency preparedness officer at Commerce’s Lucille Roybal-Allard Emergency Operations Center. Additional distributions will take place Dec. 14, 16 and 19.
The City has also made the County’s emergency preparedness pamphlets available at all public counters and council chambers, according to Rodriguez.
The pamphlets include important information on what to do in an emergency, putting together an emergency kit and where to get help.
Commerce’s state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center, opened in October 2014, is expected to play a vital role in the regional response to any El Nino related disasters.
The “state of the art” facility is equipped with an auxiliary power source, a back-up generator, additional needed space to execute EOC operations and functions.
Residents and stakeholders are also being encouraged to register with Blackboard Connect to receive free emergency alerts via cell phone. During emergencies, the City will send important messages, in English and Spanish, to registered phone numbers. People can register by calling the Public Safety and Community Services Department at (323) 887-4460.

Saying the city does not want to alarm residents, Montebello Public Works Director Danilo Batson told EGP at this point the city has no plans to conduct El Niño-specific meetings or send out emergency information to city residents.
In contrast to neighboring cities, Montebello’s website has no El Niño emergency information or safety tips.
“It’s not that we’re not concerned,” emphasized Batson, pointing out that projections for El Niño show the heaviest rains coming in late winter. “The County is already providing a lot of information and we don’t want to duplicate it,” he said, adding that the county’s emergency information is available at City Hall.
“We don’t want to alarm residents,” he cautioned.
“The only questions we get are about sandbags,” Batson explained.
The city is distributing sandbags twice a day, Monday through Thursday, at the city yard located at 311 S. Greenwood Ave. Distributions are between 12-12:30 p.m. and 2-2:30 p.m.
According to Batson, there has been a big turnout, especially on days when there is threat of rain.
Some streets in the industrial sections of South Montebello are more prone to flooding, according to the public works director. In anticipation of heavy rains, the department has contacted county officials to urge them to quickly deal with backed up drains, like those on Olympic Boulevard that caused flooding during the last heavy rainstorm.
Concerns about potential landslides in the fire damaged Montebello Hills has also been addressed, Batson said.
He told EGP that the developer of the privately-owned property, Cook Hill Properties, has power-sprayed the burnt hillside with seeds in an attempt to grow some vegetation on the land ahead of coming rains.
An El Niño related presentation may be held sometime next year, according to Baston, but nothing official has been planned.

Next week EGP looks at El Niño  preparedness  in the city of Los Angeles and tips on how to prepare for a severe storm.


Twitter @jackiereporter


Golf Links Hired to Run BG’s ‘Hidden Gem’

December 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Bell Gardens officials hope to turn a small golf course that has bled the city’s budget for years into an “ace” that may actually generate a profit of nearly $60,000 annually.

The city council last week unanimously approved a contract with Golf Links – a golf course management company – to oversee the city-owned 9-hole, 3-par golf course located at Ford Park.

The golf course has for years operated in the red, forcing the city to cover its operating shortfall to the tune of $62,000 to $72,000 a year since 2013.

“We have made every effort to operate the golf course, to at least break even, but we have not been able to do that,” said City Manager Phil Wagner during the Nov. 23 council meeting.

The economic recession hit the golf industry especially hard, explained Recreation Director Chris Daste, adding that the decline in pro-golfer Tiger Wood’s popularity has also hurt the sport.

It costs $253,000 to operate the facility but revenues from fees and events only total $166,000, according to Finance Director Will Kaholokula.

“What happened here happened in courses across the country,” Daste said. “Golf isn’t something people have to do” when money is tight, he added.

Golf Links plans to keep fees affordable after they take over in January, said Daste. They hope to encourage the city’s large soccer-playing community to give golf a try, he said. Bell Gardens youth will be allowed to play for free, he added.

Members of the council and Wagner have in the past told EGP that the golf course needs a strong marketing program to turn it around. However, efforts by the city’s parks and recreation department to market the course through social media did little to make it more than Bell Gardens’ “hidden gem.”

With a projected $91,000 operating deficit, city officials decided it was time to make a change.

“The longer we wait the longer we continue to stay in the red,” said Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno.

The golf course doesn’t have many of the amenities that attract golfers, such as water hazards and sand boxes. It is located towards the back of Ford Park, hidden from passing traffic and largely overshadowed by the park’s popular soccer complex.

“The golf course is the city’s best kept secret, but secrets are not good for business,” Daste told EGP.

Golf Links will oversee maintenance, run the pro shop and on-site concessionaire and says it’s confident it can turn a $60,000 profit for the city within a year.

Fabian Anon takes a swing at the Bell Gardens Golf Course on Monday afternoon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

Fabian Anon takes a swing at the Bell Gardens Golf Course on Monday afternoon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

The city will save thousands of dollars in maintenance costs alone, said Daste.

Golf Links’ connections and marketing plans — using mass emails and special events to create a buzz about the course — should turn things around, Kaholokula told EGP.

“This is a company that will do anything it can to make the golf course profitable,” the finance director assured.

For years, regulars like Jerry Smith have enjoyed the peace and quite of the golf course.

“It’s a beautiful place to get away from everything and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” he said.

The beginner’s course has allowed him to bring his stepson and neighbor along; both are new to the sport.

“All you need is a putter, one or two irons and of course balls,” he explained.

“You don’t even need a golf cart,” added Daniel Cervantes of Downey.

Parks and recreation leader James Rodgers has worked at the golf course for decades. He told EGP the word-of-mouth by course regulars is what brings new customers to the “greens.”

According to Daste, the city looked at neighboring communities with golf courses to identify what was working for them. “It was important that we work with a company that was familiar with the Southeast communities,” he said

The city received glowing recommendations for Golf Links, which helped turn a similar struggling golf course in nearby Pico Rivera around, Daste said.

Aceituno said he saw the transformation of the golf course in Pico Rivera first hand.

“I feel confident they can also do that here on our golf course,” he said.


Activists Protest Governor’s Silence on Exide at Hotel Opening

November 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

An appearance by Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday at the opening of a new Bell Gardens hotel drew loud protests from activists angry that he has yet to speak out on the Exide Technologies pollution scandal.

Carrying a 10-foot tall paper maché effigy of the governor, dozens of protesters rallied outside the Bicycle Casino where Brown was headlining the grand opening celebration for the casino’s new hotel: his second appearance on behalf of the project.

“Governor Brown comes to Bell Gardens to acknowledge the expansion of the Bicycle Casino but has not acknowledged the contamination of Exide Technologies,” said Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Dozens of protesters rallied outside the Bicycle Casino to confront Gov. Jerry Brown who has yet to speak out on the ExideTechnologies pollution scandal. (East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice)

Dozens of protesters rallied outside the Bicycle Casino to confront Gov. Jerry Brown who has yet to speak out on the ExideTechnologies pollution scandal. (East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice)

Lopez was referring to the now shuttered Vernon plant’s illegal emissions of arsenic and lead and other toxic chemicals that have put more than 100,000 east and southeast area residents at a higher risk of cancer and other illnesses.

State toxic control regulators allowed Exide to operate for decades on an interim permit, despite dozens of handling of hazardous waste and emissions violations.

“We are calling on Gov. Brown to meet with community leaders and to commit the necessary funds to clean up the contamination the state allowed Exide to create,” Lopez said.

The governor did not acknowledge the protesters, according to organizers.

The Bicycle Casino Rolls Out Red Carpet for Hotel Unveiling

November 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The unveiling Wednesday of a much-anticipated luxury hotel in Bell Gardens at one of the region’s most well known venues drew elected officials from throughout the Southeast area as well as a second visit from  California’s governor.

Gov. Jerry Brown was at The Bicycle Casino just two years ago to take part in the announcement of plans to build the $50 million, seven-story, 100-room hotel. At the time, local officials called the launch of the project a “momentous occasion” for the city of Bell Gardens.

“Today was one of the most exciting days for all of us here at The Bicycle Hotel & Casino, and for the city of Bell Gardens,” said Managing General Partner & CEO Hashem Minaiy on Wednesday.

“This is truly a dream realized and we look forward to welcoming our first guest in just a few short weeks,” he said.

The Bicycle Casino Hotel will open to the public Dec. 1. (The Bicycle Casino)

The Bicycle Casino Hotel will open to the public Dec. 1. (The Bicycle Casino)

The hotel is set to open to the public Dec. 1. It will feature a full spa, suites, an elevated outdoor pool, and event and private meeting spaces.

Guests at the Casino will also be able to enjoy luxurious accommodations along with live entertainment, dining and a drink at an on-site brewery and cocktail lounge. The hotel adds 230,000 square-feet to the Casino located near the 710 Freeway.

Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez was among the handful of local dignitaries on stage saluting the opening of the new hotel during the elegant and festive grand opening ceremony which included lunch and entertainment.

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, joined other local dignitaries at the grand unveiling of The Bicycle Casino’s hotel  in Bell Gardens Wednesday. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, joined other local dignitaries at the grand unveiling of The Bicycle Casino’s hotel in Bell Gardens Wednesday. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

The Bicycle Casino is the biggest economic engine for the city of Bell Gardens, which receives a percentage of the casino’s take from table games and poker tournaments.

Although the city’s reliance has decreased steadily over the years, at $11 million, casino revenues make up over 40 percent of the city’s general fund, according to the city’s 2015-2015 Fiscal Budget.

In addition, the $45 million-privately funded hotel is expected to generate $160,000 in new revenue from Transient Occupancy or bed taxes.

The opening of the hotel is expected to create 160 new permanent jobs in addition to the approximately 300-construction-related jobs while the hotel was built.

“Hashem and I set out to not only build a beautiful hotel for our guests, but a great property that can be shared with and enjoyed by everyone in the community,” said Robert H. Carter, President of Carter Management Group, Inc., a general partner of The Bicycle Hotel & Casino.

“Having the Governor, city officials and all of our guests here to see the hotel for the first time made this a most memorable day,” Carter said.

Veterans Memorial Stands Proud, Unseen

November 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A 20-foot tall bronze monument of a fallen soldier in the arms of an angel stands on the corner of Loveland Street and Perry Road in Bell Gardens. On a typical day, hundreds of people walk past the statue, oblivious that it stands as a tribute to U.S Hispanic veterans who have received the country’s highest military honor.

Bell Gardens’ Hispanic American Veterans Memorial stands proudly in the city’s appropriately named Veterans Park. It is surrounded by the flags of all five branches of the military – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard —in honor of the over 3,400 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S.’s highest award for valor above and beyond the call of duty. Etched on the stone are the names of 39 Latinos who have received the prestigious award.

Lea este artículo en Español: Monumento de Veteranos se Alza Orgulloso, Inadvertido

Bell Gardens Assistant City Manager John Oropeza was the director of public works when the monument was installed in the predominately Latino, Spanish-speaking Southeast city with a large number of foreign-born residents. His name is on the monument as are the names of the members of the city council that commissioned the bronze edifice – all of them Latinos.

“Back then, the council asked how the city could build something that would honor Hispanic veterans,” Oropeza told EGP.

“But because we are all Americans, we paid tribute to all the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients,” he explained about the monument’s dual purpose.

Until 2001, Veterans Park was known as Bell Gardens City Park. In May of that year, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renamed park coincided with the Memorial Day weekend, a time to honor members of the Armed Forces who lost their lives in the line of duty.

“Little did we know, later that year, with the attacks of 9/11, we would [soon] join a new war,” Oropeza recalled.

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, today there are 3,495 Medal of Honor recipients, 68 more than when the Bell Gardens memorial was built.

Bell Gardens is just one of the many local cities and communities that have public monuments paying tribute to U.S. veterans, including several that single out the contributions of Latinos, such as the Mexican-American All Wars Memorial in East Los Angeles and the Wall of Honor at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles. A major freeway interchange – where the I-5, I-10, SR-60 and US-101 meet, has been named the “Medal of Honor Recipient Eugene A. Obregon, USMC Memorial Interchange.”

Candice Gutierrez, 33, was sitting on the steps of the Bell Gardens monument Monday, talking on her cell phone. She told EGP after her call that she regularly visits the park to take in the view of the memorial. It reminds her of growing up in Georgia, she said.

“Most of my family are veterans, so I come sit here to have a minute of peace,” she said. “I was surprised to find something like this when I moved to Bell Gardens.”

The Hispanic American Veterans Memorial is located at Veterans Park in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The Hispanic American Veterans Memorial is located at Veterans Park in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Gutierrez keeps photos of the monument on her phone and told EGP she made it a point to read the inscription on the monument to learn about its significance to her community. Unlike her, Gutierrez, who identified herself as “Caucasian,” says most of the city’s residents are Latino and immigrants. And while she believes the building of a monument dedicated to Hispanic veterans was intended to inspire pride in the city’s young people, Gutierrez laments that most of the Latino teenagers she sees, just walk past the monument without giving it a second thought.

Bell Gardens High School student Jorge Chavez, 16, is one of those teens. He walks by the monument almost every day on his way to and from and school, but told EGP he doesn’t give it much thought. It’s just a memorial, he said, adding he doesn’t relate to it because he doesn’t know anyone in the military.

On the other hand, sixteen-year-old Ashley Rico says when she walks past the monument she always thinks about the impact war has had on the military families back at home, especially when a loved one is killed in action. The Bell Gardens High student told EGP she knows other residents also care about the tribute to veterans and keep a vigilant eye out for any sign of disrespect.

“Drivers will honk whenever they see couples or skaters near the monument because this is supposed to be a place of respect,” she said.

Rico wishes there were more events, like those in years past, honoring veterans.

In recent years, the city has scaled back its observances to placing a wreath on the steps of the memorial to commemorate Veterans Day on November 11 and Memorial Day, observed annually on the last Monday in May. Oropeza says budget constraints have kept Bell Gardens from doing much more.

“We don’t have many historic monuments in Bell Gardens,” Rico points out. So, “This is something special in our city.”


Twitter @nancyreporting

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