From a new mayor to several high-profile business closures and major projects approved, 2015 was a year of change for many Arroyo Grande residents.
And 2016 will likely be more of the same, Mayor Jim Hill said. “My first year has been very busy. It’s an adjustment, certainly.”
Hill, an engineer at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, sat down with The Tribune at the start of this year to discuss some of Arroyo Grande’s biggest achievements — and struggles — in 2015 and share what’s coming up this year.
The biggest challenge of last year was one that had been 15 years in the making: What to do with Brisco Road.
The city has long struggled with how best to manage traffic at the busy intersection of Brisco Road and the Highway 101 northbound ramps. In March 2015, the City Council voted to send two possible alternatives through the public review process; one would close the off-ramps permanently while another would relocate the ramps and add a roundabout at Rodeo Drive.
Though the city had historically preferred the latter option, its $28 million price tag — compared with an estimated $14 million to close the ramps — raised some eyebrows from residents and council members who questioned the necessity of the switch.
The city temporarily closed the ramps for a traffic study in September, to be reopened in January. In December, however, the city held a special council meeting to discuss keeping the ramps closed into July, when the environmental documents for both Brisco fixes, as well as the traffic study, are expected to be completed.
“Of the people that I’ve talked to, I would say over 70 percent are positive,” Hill said of comments on the closure. “I’ve had a number of people tell me that they were originally opposed to closing the ramps, but now that they see how it works, it turns out that it is a great idea.”
Hill said “an economical resolution of Brisco Road” is one of his top priorities this year.
A report on the closure and the traffic study is scheduled for Feb. 23.
Economic development continues as a major issue facing Arroyo Grande, Hill said.
The city discussed several large developments during the year. In October, the City Council approved a housing and commercial development at Courtland Street and Grand Avenue after the developer redesigned it at the city’s direction to include more commercial space. Last month, the council approved a proposed medical office building next to Arroyo Grande Community Hospital that will be one of the city’s tallest buildings. That project was first presented to the city in 2015.
“A thing that I think we’ve had some struggles with is improving the business climate in Arroyo Grande,” Hill said. “I want to hopefully encourage more businesses here and to encourage the businesses that are here.”
Arroyo Grande was hit hard last year when Haggen declared bankruptcy in September and closed its Arroyo Grande grocery store. The closure left many residents without a supermarket. The city does have a Trader Joe’s and a Smart & Final.
“It’s a tragedy for the residents on several levels when something like Haggen happens and they go out of business,” Hill said. “Not only are the residents inconvenienced in not being able to go to a convenient grocery store, but a number of people that work there and depend on that for head of household jobs and their livelihood are out.”
Hill also cited the August closure of The Girls Restaurant after 42 years due to escalating rent as another example of the city’s struggle to help businesses.
“That has very adverse consequences,” he said. “Encouraging businesses is what we need to do.”
The Arroyo Grande Haggen building is still vacant, though Hill hinted that a new business might be locating there in coming months.
“Hopefully we’ll get that back on an even keel soon,” he said.
The good news
Hill was quick to note that though the city may have had some struggles, it also had some positive moments — such as redesigning the police station in June and keeping the Elm Street Dog Park open after its managing group parted ways with the city.
Hill also took pride in continuing to pursue updates at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District sewage treatment plant (as mayor, Hill sits on the sanitation district’s board of directors).
“Personnel safety would be my No. 1 priority there,” he said. “My No. 2 priority, because of the potential environmental consequences, is reliably running the plant that we have. And my third priority, because there is no (backup) in that final stage of the process, is to as immediately as possible get a (backup) in place. And my final goal would be to do all that economically.”
He also noted that, personally, the past year has been enlightening as he learned about the demands of being the mayor and the numerous responsibilities that entails.
Hill sailed into office on the crest of a successful write-in campaign in November 2014, after previously serving on the Oceano Community Services District Board of Directors.
Given the divisiveness of that election, he said, “I do hope to bring people together in the community and kind of heal the rifts that are there. I have been able to do that to some degree, but there are still some issues that remain to be resolved.”