By Judith Salkin
It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who mused that the only constant in life is change. In the desert, no city epitomizes that concept more than Indio, the Coachella Valley's oldest and fastgrowing community.
From its earliest days as a Union Pacific Railroad depot to its current stature as the home of major events like the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Indio has evolved into a thriving center for art, culture, and commerce, earning the moniker "the City of Festivals."
"Goldenvoice has been a terrific partner for Indio," says Mayor Lupe Ramos Watson. "Because of Coachella and Stagecoach (‘California's Country Music Festival'), we have more people who know where Indio is. For certain people, those events put us on the map."
In addition to the two annual Goldenvoice festivals, which draw in excess of 100,000 people per day during Coachella, and 65,000 per day during Stagecoach. The city has contracted with the chamber of commerce to produce a slew of popular local events, including the Taste of the East Valley and East Valley Restaurant Week (October), the Indio California BBQ State Championship (November), the Winter Balloon Glow Festival (December), the Southwest Arts Festival (January), and the Discover Indio Block Party (May).
"Indio has always adopted and incorporated the cultures of all the people who live here," says Ramos Watson. "For us, these festivals are a way to celebrate our culture and to share it with all our neighbors."
Since being incorporated in 1930, Indio has consistently attracted thousands of new residents each year, thanks in part to the shared vision and cooperation of its leaders. "I am one of the fortunate ones," says Ramos Watson, who was born and raised in North Indio. "This has always been a city of talented, hardworking people. In my lifetime I've seen amazing growth and development."
That's not to say Indio hasn't weathered its share of challenges, such as the global economic downturn of 2008. "At that time, we were investing heavily in infrastructure, repairing roads, and building the new Teen and Senior Center," recalls City Manager Dan Martinez, who came on board in 2010. "The recession forced us to reevaluate our priorities and renew our focus on efficiency. Through the combined team efforts of city staff and council, we've been able to return stability to Indio."
That commitment is reflected in the profusion of new businesses, such as the Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership at the I-10 Auto Mall and the Walmart in North Indio, the latter which added nearly 300 jobs in the city in 2014. "(Walmart) was built in just nine months," Martinez says proudly. "Developers now know that when they come to Indio, they're going to get excellent, expedited service, from the building department through the permitting process."
Echoing that assessment is the financial planning website Ned's Wallet, which recently named Indio as one of the top cities in the country for starting a small business/restaurant. Factors considered included favorable economic conditions and steady population growth, both of which Indio scored favorably in. And it's not just big box stores and car dealerships that the city is attracting — the historic Old Town District, site of the annual Tamale Festival, is slowly but surely starting to bustle with the addition of new shops. Spearheading the effort to bring new businesses to the city is the Indio Chamber of Commerce, which recently launched a business incubator program that offers potential owners assistance in getting their operations up and running.
"Say you have an idea for a business, but don't know how to get it started," says Josh Bonner, president and CEO of the Indio Chamber Of Commerce. "This is a place where you can work for two or three or six months, with people who can help guide you through everything you need to do to get you into an office or storefront. We think of them as partners."
With the surge of new businesses setting up in the city and Riverside County investing in the new law library and College of the Desert's East Valley Campus and Teen Center, Indio is positioning itself as a place where residents can live, work, and learn.
"There were some who were concerned that our COD campus would siphon students away from the main campus in Palm Desert," Ramos Watson says. "But the reality is, most of our students are kids who probably wouldn't have gone to COD otherwise, whether it be because of lack of transportation or scheduling challenges. This campus has become part of their community, and we're all better off because of it."
Fostering an inviting creative environment is another major component of Indio's revitalization plan, including improvements to the existing Indio Performing Arts Center and Coachella Valley Art Center near Old Town. An organic extension of that effort is the addition of local eateries, galleries, and craft shops that attract the so-called "creative class" essential to any flourishing community.
"It would be nice to have more places where visitors could stop for dinner after a performance or take classes, and more places where people could see an art exhibit," Ramos Watson says. "We've seen it pop up in places like Pomona, Eagle Rock, and Monrovia, and we're seeing it start to happen here in Indio. But it all starts with creating the right environment."
One project currently benefiting from expedited permitting is a fourstory mixed-use building to be built near City Hall. "The bottom story is slated for shops, with apartments in the upper stories," Martinez says. "It will provide housing within walking distance of the COD campus."
Another important piece to ensuring Indio's long-term success is improved infrastructure, and city leaders are taking the necessary steps to make roads and facilities more attractive to prospective residents and businesses alike. "We're going through an evolution," Martinez says. "For example, we're looking at moving all of the old overhead cables underground and adding more sidewalks to make it easier for foot traffic. Some of these projects will happen sooner than others, but they're getting done. And I think people are taking notice."
One current project, the new freeway interchange at Jefferson Street and Interstate 10, is under construction and the city is working on plans for additional interchange improvements at Monroe Street and Golf Center Parkway. "It takes years to get in the queue (with Caltrans) for those projects," says Ramos Watson. "We want to be prepared when it happens."
Also in the planning stages is nearly $20 million in improvements for the Highway 111 Corridor. The goal of this project is to open congested arteries to the city's main business district while making it more attractive to visitors. "We have a great anchor with Mathis Brothers at the west end of the corridor," Bonner says. "And we've had four or five new restaurants open in the past year. We fully anticipate that trend to continue."
Riverside County also continues to be a major investor in Indio. In recent years, it has begun projects in the city that total nearly $350 million, including the new Riverside County Law Building (next to the Larson Justice Center) and a new detention facility and county offices. "Indio is the county's second seat," Ramos Watson says. "And it has always had an interest in seeing Indio succeed."
Rest assured public safety has not been left out of the equation, Martinez says. He credits the efforts of Indio Police Chief Richard Twiss with improving relations between the department and some of the less fortunate members of the community. "He's brought together city and county departments and local organizations like the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission to build a program that gives homeless individuals skills to help them find employment and permanent homes," Martinez says. "Over the past three years, it's reduced homelessness within our city borders by about 50 percent."
While some of these changes may seem small, it's the totality that creates a lasting impact. "When a city has stability, you don't see the changes happening," Martinez says. "You have to look back over 15 or 20 years to see it, and then you realize just how far you've come."
Lupe Ramos Watson
Michael Wilson, Elaine Holmes, Troy Strange