After 14 years on the Coachella City Council, including six as its leader, three-term Mayor Steven Hernandez said he has learned that change occurs gradually.
“Vision takes time,” Hernandez said.
Now, as the 37-year-old campaigns for a fourth term as mayor, he is celebrating the council’s vision, which he said has brought new bridges and parks, improved public safety, and increased recreational and cultural opportunities.
He is also laying out his plan for another two-year term. It builds on the city’s recent achievements, he said, and includes developing a city police department, bringing more housing and jobs, and laying the groundwork for creating a city-owned electric utility.
“While vision has taken time, I want to just say that Coachella’s time has come,” he said. “Coachella’s time is here, and we need to keep that momentum going.”
Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and U.S. Rep. Raul Ruizhave all lived in Coachella — which, Hernandez said, means that representatives at all levels of government can now work together to address the challenges and opportunities facing the region’s easternmost city, which is is 98% Latino. Home to nearly 45,000 people, it has the lowest median household income ($33,870) and youngest median age (33.5) of any city in the Coachella Valley.
“I want to continue to build on the culture of the families, of our rich traditions, making sure that people are comfortable in our city, that people know that this is a community that is run by Latinos, that’s for Latinos,” he said.
Lesly Figueroa, a 24-year-old community organizer, is challenging Hernandez for the position. She told The Desert Sun she would draw on her experience as a grassroots organizer, as well as her knowledge of city planning, to boost the city government’s communication, engagement and accountability with residents.
She said some residents are looking for a change, noting Hernandez’s tenure. And, she said, there are examples of young mayors leading cities across the state.
“Anyone should be able to run,” she said. “You don’t have to ask for permission.”
Hernandez countered that he was elected to the council in 2006 at age 23, and at 37 is on the outer edge of the millennial generation.
“It’s been through our collaboration, not only with the city, but with the county and with the state and with the Congress, that Coachella is getting what it’s getting, and it’s making vast improvements,” he said.
“That’s reason to be celebrated,” he added, “that’s not reason to say, ‘Oh, there’s a problem there.'”
Building infrastructure, beautifying the city
Hernandez and his two older brothers were raised in Coachella by his grandparents, who were migrant farmworkers. He graduated from Coachella Valley High School and the University of California, Riverside.
He returned to Coachella and earned a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Southern California during his second term on the council.
Hernandez works as the chief of staff for Perez. He and his wife are raising their two daughters in the city.
Hernandez is proud of what’s transpired in the city since he took office.
The city has made major investments in infrastructure, he said. Its library, once less than 2,000 square feet, is now more than 13,000 square feet and has become a “beautiful hub” for the city, he said. Its new senior center opened just months before the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shutter.
The homicide rate has dropped. There were five homicides in the city in 2012 and 2014; that number has since decreased to zero in 2017, one in 2018 and none again in 2019, according to data from the California Department of Justice.
Hernandez credited the improvement in violent crime to collaborations with local nonprofit organizations and the school district to do intervention, prevention and provide more positive recreation opportunities for residents.
The city improved Bagdouma Park and Veteran’s Park and built new, smaller parks, he said. It has boosted the city’s walkability, he said, and added “miles” of bike lanes.
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Coachella has achieved these changes, Hernandez said, while being prudent with its finances. Itseconomy isn’t reliant on tourism, which has meant that as other cities face fiscal emergencies amid the pandemic, Coachella is facing a projected deficit of $670,751 for the 2020-21 fiscal year, largely due to anticipated sales tax reductions.
In comparison, the Palm Springs City Council this summer adopted a budget with a projected $47 million shortfall. Some of the city’s steepest anticipated revenue losses, by percentage, were in transient occupancy tax and sales tax revenues, which were decimated by the stay-at-home orders that have restricted tourism this year.
“We realized that if we can bring in the infrastructure, if we can beautify our city, the economics are going to come,” he said.
‘That hotel is going to get built’
Some of the council’s vision, meanwhile, has not yet come to fruition.
Hotel Indigo, which is supposed to be the first hotel in the city, remains incomplete as the project’s developer sues his business partners for $50 million. The hotel, billed as a “modern luxury oasis,” was touted as a way for the city to help capture some of the tourism tax dollars that have flowed largely to the western end of the Coachella Valley.
Hernandez said he remains optimistic that the hotel will eventually be built. He pointed to other unfinished developments across the valley and is confident that another investor will step up to finish the project, which is about 65% constructed, he said.
“At the end of the day, that hotel is going to get built,” he said.
In the meantime, other hotels could be built first. A Motel 6 is about to be constructed near Interstate 10, he said, and the city is in discussions about another hotel project proposed for the Avenue 50 area.
Some residents happy with ‘growth,’ others want ‘new leadership’
Some Coachella residents say they are thrilled with the city’s progress, especially with downtown redevelopment.
Steve Garcia opened Sixth Street Coffee, which is adjacent to the library and across the street from City Hall, in April 2019. It has quickly become a popular gathering point for people seeking a place to work or grab a horchata-flavored cold brew to go.
When Garcia bought his home in Coachella in 2011, he said, some parts of the city lacked streetlights and parks. He would only go downtown, to Sixth Street, to pay his utility bill. Since then, there have been significant changes in the city — improvements he credited, in large part, to the vision of Hernandez and the council.
“It’s cool, as someone who lives here, to see the growth,” Garcia said. “But it’s also cool as a business owner, who has a business in the city, to see the growth as well.”
Nick Meza, who owns Coachella Smoke Co. & Lounge, the first marijuana dispensary in the city’s downtown, agreed. He has long hoped the city would become a place where people, including his three daughters, could grow up and return for good jobs.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to own a business here and create jobs for not only my kids … but also for us people from here,” he said. “We have a long way to go, but we’re just happy to be part of the process.”
But some Coachella residents say it’s time for a change in city leadership.
“The city of Coachella needs new leadership — bottom-up leadership that really understands the needs of the city,” said resident Cindy Gomez.
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Gomez, 33, said she would like to see Coachella become a more vibrant place for young people. The council seems to be banking on marijuana dispensaries and parks, she said. But she envisions a city with a college campus, restaurants and more professional and recreational opportunities.
“That’s all great, but there are a lot of young people here, and we need new, fresh ideas, that are attractive to young people,” said Gomez, who plans to support Figueroa.
Claudia Lua Alvarado, a Riverside County resident who lives in an unincorporated community that neighbors Coachella, also called for new leadership in the city.
She pointed to long-running concerns about the lack of lights at two city parks. Previously, she said, she had to pay $26 per hour, plus $100 deposits on a couple occasions, so her family and other visitors could have lights in the parks in the evenings. She said she fought for months to change the policy.
The council voted unanimously in January to keep the parks’ lights on until 10 p.m. and expand the number of days the parks are open to community members. Still, she said, the parks need more amenities, like more bathrooms.
The experience, she said, has spurred her to support Figueroa.
Figueroa, she said, “believes in residents’ engagement, and that’s very important.”
‘I’m about Coachella’
Hernandez’s vision for Coachella’s future includes creating a city police department. Hernandez said he is hopeful that local officers could develop relationships with city residents, enabling them to respond to mental health issues and other situations in a community-focused manner.
The city has contracted with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement since 1998. Council members in June unanimously supported the idea of beginning to save for the costs of establishing a municipal police department. An independent police department could cost about $10 million to $15 million to get started, but the exact annual costs for services are not yet known.
He also is interested in building out the fiber-optic system in Coachella, in a bid to attract businesses and employees requiring high-speed internet. It would help students, many of whom are struggling to learn at home with unreliable internet during the pandemic.
About 71% of Coachella residents have internet service — the lowest rate of connectivity among the Coachella Valley’s nine cities, according to the Coachella Economic Partnership.
He wants to see the city build its own electric utility, too. The city has space to do it, he said, noting that just 33% of Coachella’s 53 square miles have been developed so far.
And while Garcia, the previous mayor of Coachella, went on to become the State Assemblymember representing portions of Riverside and Imperial counties, Hernandez said his focus is firmly set on leading the city for another two-year term.
If he were interested in seeking higher office, he added, he could have thrown his hat into the ring last year for the 28th State Senate District seat. Jeff Stone, a Republican from La Quinta, resigned from the position last year to accept an appointment as regional director in the Department of Labor.
“I’m about Coachella,” Hernandez said. “I love our community, I love our families, I love what we’re doing. … My focus is getting this job done in these two years.”
Rebecca Plevin reports on immigration and the City of Coachella for The Desert Sun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccaplevin.