When Menifee City Council members approved the new 2011-2012 budget, they greatly increased funding for economic development, from $219K to $984K, nearly four and a half times more than the previous year.
While only three years old, some might say the City of Menifee should take a slow growth approach, but others argue that economic development is way overdue, and city council members seem to agree.
They appointed Bill Rawlings as City Manager back in January, who had previously served as Redevelopment Director for the City of Vista. Last July, Rawlings hired Jeff Wyman as the city's economic development director. Wyman had previously worked under Rawlings at the City of Vista.
Before cityhood, the County of Riverside had approved several large housing developments within Menifee Valley, but very few commercial and retail, forcing residents here to flock to Temecula for shopping and dining options.
"Housing had been the economic development in Menifee under the County", Wyman explained. "There had been no focus on business, retail, and restaurants".
Last month, Wyman presented the city council with a "Restaurant Incentive Program", designed to make Menifee more attractive to restaurant owners. Up until now, opening up a new restaurant in Menifee had cost as much as $100,000 in fees. The program will effectively cut those fees by as much as $50,000.
"We had some very good response on it at the ICSC last weekend" Wyman said, referring to a trade show of the International Council of Shopping Centers held in San Diego. "We grabbed the attention of several restaurants and were able to market our city to them", he continued.
And marketing the name "Menifee" to restaurants and retailers continues to be an on-going to task for the staffers at City Hall. With nearly 80,000 residents, the City of Menifee continues to be the largest city in Southern California with the least amount of name recognition.
"A lot of the marketing we do is focused at brokers who represent retail developments" Wyman explained. "These guys also represent developments all over Southern California. We give them information they don't have about us."
Just over a week ago, Rawlings addressed the Southwest Riverside County Association of Realtors in their City Manager's Breakfast, describing the city's economic development plan as "very aggressive", and that an important part of that plan involved real estate professionals...
"We're creating a very aggressive economic development, and we've heard some very wonderful ideas and we want to reach out to you and the business community so that we can generate additional revenues. And one of the ways we do that is in sales tax. In Menifee, the sales tax revenue is very, very low, compared to our population. In the wisdom of the past 20 years, there's been a lot of home construction in Menifee and not very much retail development."
In terms of sales tax generation, the City of Menifee ranks among the lowest in the County of Riverside, taking in only $60.00 per person, compared to $212.00 per person in Temecula.
In a meeting of community leaders in Menifee last June, Rawlings said that Menifee loses $11 million dollars a year in sales tax due to residents shopping and dining in other cities... "We're losing $10 to $11 million a year in sales tax dollars due to residents going to other cities for their shopping and entertainment. Our sales tax generation is less than one-half of the next lowest city."
In Temecula, sales taxes represent nearly 50% of that city's total revenue. In Menifee, sales taxes represents only 18%. In fact, Menifee still relies heavily on its property taxes (36%). Vehicle license fees comes in third at 17% of total revenues, and is likely to vanish due to recent legislation signed by Governor Brown.
But while property owners might complain about paying too much in property taxes, only 0.1274% of that amount is kept by the city, with much of it still going to the County. "Most cities sales tax generation is about double their property tax generation", Wyman said. "In Menifee, it's the opposite."
While many residents in Menifee have asked for more restaurants, even more are asking for good paying jobs. "One of our priorities is to bring in businesses that will bring jobs" Wyman said. But it's not easy bringing in employers that pay high salaries and offer good benefits.
High tech employers tend to locate in communities where there's an abundance of amenities. Thus far, Menifee hasn't had enough retail and dining to attract the kind of labor force they want. "We have to start by bringing in restaurants and retail in order to create an environment for big employers", Wyman went on to explain. "We have to have all the right pieces in place in order for those companies to feel comfortable about coming here."
As for fixing roads and widening bridges, the city doesn't seem to have enough money available. While Wyman and Rawlings are looking to increase sales tax generation, they've also explained that many big restaurant chains and department stores still feel as if Menifee doesn't have the population to support business. So, it still comes down to building more homes and bringing in more people.
How does a city attract more residents if it doesn't have much to offer in retail, dining, and jobs? How does a city attract more retail, dining, and jobs, if it doesn't have enough residents?
One small answer is to beautify the city. Part of the $984K in economic development funds that was approved for this fiscal year's budget is also being spent on projects to plant more greenery. Recently, the city completed a project at Sun City Shopping Center, putting new shrubs and trees along Bradley Rd and Cherry Hills Blvd. They've also approved a project along Newport Rd near Haun Rd intersection, and have similar projects in the works for Romoland and Quail Valley.
Thus far, both Wyman and Rawlings seem optimistic about the city's future, seeing Menifee at the center of South West Riverside County's economy. "In ten years from now, we'll look back at the discussions we had and smile at how far we've come", Wyman said in an interview with us. "Menifee has a lot of potential".