Thirteen Signs of Progress

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1. Eisenhower Medical Center: Among the best  – Anointed last year as one of the nation’s 100 best hospitals (based on an evaluation that factored operational efficiency, financial performance, quality of care, and adaptation to the environment), EMC offers an encore: completion of new phases in the sprawling Rancho Mirage campus’ $400 million overhaul. With a cancer center, co-generation utility plant, imaging center, and surgical pavilion expansion already completed, the radar shows more to come: a 168-bed patient pavilion, two urgent-care centers, and extensive expansion of the emergency, orthopedic, and
cardiovascular departments.

“When we have sensed a need to change the scope of something in order to better serve the community, we have done it, albeit at a cost 33 percent more than the $300 million estimate in this particular case,” says Vice President for Facilities and Construction Ali Tourkaman. “It has been extremely challenging, yet also highly rewarding.”

2. Palm Springs Casinos: The boom continues – The reported growing pains (lower-than-expected cash flow, employee layoffs, and management turnover) hardly seem noticeable at the new and always-upgrading casino properties around Coachella Valley: Fantasy Springs Resort Casino (Indio), Agua Caliente Casino (Rancho Mirage), Spa Resort Casino (Palm Springs), Augustine Casino (Coachella), Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa (Cabazon), and Spotlight 29 Casino (Coachella). One (Agua Caliente) wasn’t even on the map two-and-a-half years ago, and two others (Morongo and Fantasy Springs) recently invested more than $200 million each into renovation and expansion that included high-rise hotels. Spa Resort also has upgraded substantially to stay on the competitive edge. Collectively, it’s a mushroom effect that should seduce tourists and create more local jobs.

3. Cathedral City: A new look – You know there’s progress when they’re coming for ice cream! The valley’s second-largest city is hard at work developing, and redeveloping, its downtown — an elongated 70-acre sector on both sides of East Palm Canyon Drive. The retail roster so far includes Cold Stone Creamery, Starbucks, Sprint Xpress, and the wine shop Vino 100, all within a stone’s throw of City Hall and the Mary Pickford Theatre. Three hotels are on the drawing board (including Sheraton Desert Cove, which will have a golf course). “We are coming into our own in business,” says Chamber of Commerce President Greg Wetmore. “In the past, we were a bedroom community that was somewhat slow to get going. Now I see growth and development and opportunity.”

4. Golf, golf, and more golf – In these parts, one should tune out Mark Twain’s folksy observation that “golf is a good walk wasted.” At last count, the valley had 123 layouts, but apparently there remains a need for more. Residential communities such as Sun City Shadow Hills will have 18-hole private courses. And Escena, a development taking shape near Palm Springs International Airport, will have a course that’s available for public play.

The sport remains a heavy hitter in the valley’s economy. Credit golf for our pricey fairway homes, hundreds of jobs, and a glowing community profile when our marquee events (Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Kraft Nabisco Championship, and Samsung World Championship) come around.

5. The River a Rancho Mirage Icon – Finally, some stability! The River’s lineup of restaurants makes for an attractive package when combined with a 16-screen cinema, Borders Books & Music, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Tulip Hill Winery, and all that water. The River is a local hangout for all ages.

Sensing the time was right, Beverly Hills developer Jerome Snyder is attempting to cash in big-time by selling the upscale dining, entertainment, and retail complex to the London-based Grosvenor Group. A deal had yet to be finalized at Palm Springs Life’s press time, but could happen this fall. However, The River is only part of the appeal of Rancho Mirage, which has nearly
$55 million in reserves and ample money for quality-of-life initiatives, such as burying utility lines and opening a $13.5 million library.

6. Indio Booms – How do you spell progress? I-n-d-i-o. The population increased 10 percent last year and is approaching 67,000 as the valley’s most populous city. Growth prevails in residential and commercial development, including the redevelopment of downtown. Total building-permit valuations approached $482 million last year as projects gobbled up land around existing neighborhoods and spread to the north side of Interstate 10.

“There is a need for long-term planning, so the city provides infrastructure and services that are needed for all this,” says resident Ramos Watson. That part of the equation looms as an imposing challenge, but the city that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year is banking on strong leadership from recently hired Glenn Southard. The seasoned pro earns $240,000 annually as California’s second-highest-paid city manager.

Meanwhile, the most anticipated project — the renovation of Indio Fashion Mall — inches along some two-and-a-half years after Malibu-based Richard Weintraub’s conglomerate purchased it. A grandiose remake looms as a socko success.

7. Coachella on the move – The East Valley’s affordable alternative to Indio was left with one grocery store — a Hispanic market — when Vons closed, but Coachella bounced back when Food 4 Less opened as anchor tenant at Coachella Gateway, a 200,000-square-foot shopping center on Grapefruit Boulevard. An Albertsons also is in the pipeline. The city’s manufacturing sector added 250 jobs when guitar maker Ernie Ball’s strings and accessories division moved here. California Pools and Spas, California Plastering, and Precision Gunite also relocated to Coachella.

Housing construction surged this year with nearly 7,000 homes entitled and developers submitting paperwork with the city for several thousand additional units.

Growth, of course, requires infrastructure and capital improvements. With the bulk of development ticketed for areas between Interstate 10 and Highway 86, a $50 million capital-improvements project is concentrated there. “We’re responding to the growing needs of the community,” says Greg Bever of Lundin Development. “We identified a void, and now we’re trying to fill it.”

8. Higher Ed: a more sophisticated workforce – College of the Desert’s facilities master plan has a $372 million price tag, but last year’s passage of a $346.5 million bond measure certainly will help upgrade this community college. Meanwhile, along Cook Street in Palm Desert’s north end, California State University, San Bernardino, and University of California, Riverside, offer limited programs on small but growing campuses. The Cal State operation, relocated from modular buildings at COD three years ago, has about 1,000 students now. The UC campus welcomed its first enrollees this fall in two graduate programs. Several cities have made substantial donations to the schools in a collective effort to keep more college-bound young adults in the valley.

9. A bigger convention center – A $34.7 million expansion increased the size of the Palm Springs Convention Center to 261,000 square feet. It includes a new west entrance, flanked by stone-faced columns, and mountain views through 40-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows. Envisioned to attract more conventions and tourists, the expanded convention center is expected to increase the city’s annual hotel-tax revenue 35 percent, to $17 million, within five years. The project was funded through a $40 million revenue bond to be paid off with an increased hotel tax.

10. Desert Hot Springs: a new start – The vantage point at Highland Falls, which offers a stunning view all the way to the Salton Sea, seems like a metaphor for the potential for broad progress in this wind-blown village north of Interstate 10. Desert Hot Springs is experiencing a residential boom with appreciable retail and office space gaining momentum, as well — an encouraging rebound from bankruptcy. Strong, sustained leadership at city hall and community-wide interest must continue to drive the change.

11. Popularity and property values – The median home price in the valley is approaching $370,000 (up about 25 percent over October 2004). And while that’s good news for those who own homes, it’s not-so-good news for those who don’t. The surge that has nudged the year-round valley population above 350,000 has been the biggest factor in housing prices. Still, the valley’s metamorphosis into an intertwined network of cities with balanced demographics has to be a sign of progress.

12.  La Quinta: Investing wisely – What’s not to like about the self-proclaimed “gem of the desert”? The city has nearly 33,000 residents, but also sufficient development and commerce to fund what’s needed to support the population. Taxable sales reached $309 billion in 2003, representing a 10-year increase of a staggering 550 percent. And building-permit valuations last year were a city record $350 million. The city has a new public golf course, too. SilverRock opened in February. “We’re on the right track,” says Mayor Don Adolph. “We’ll continue to invest wisely and cautiously, supporting tax-generating development and enhancing public services in response to residential needs.”

13. Airport Ready: for more visitors – The airport’s passenger count so far is on track to approach 1.5 million this year, which would eclipse last year’s record of 1,367,804. Besides adding flights, $15 million in capital improvements will include many upgrades, such as security and information display systems, as well as a second concourse that will cost $9 million. Most of the funds will come from federal grants.  

We can do better!

 Even the most beautiful people wrinkle as they age; the same could be said about the cities of the Coachella Valley. With time and growth comes the challenge of maintaining the area’s enviable quality of life. But, just as plastic surgeons can work wonders on crow’s feet and sagging cheeks, so can forward-thinking public officials and private residents iron out kinks in their hometown infrastructure. Here are six areas that could stand a little doctoring:

1. Traffic: We need alternatives
The drive from Indio to Palm Springs that used to take about 20 or 25 minutes has become a poky 45 or 50. More traffic lights. More people. More vehicles. More reasons to be driving around. Perhaps it’s one reason why more folks are running red lights. The obvious solution is adding roads as well as new lanes so high-volume traffic spreads out more. It would help, too, if more folks used alternate routes or public transportation. Example: Take Portola Avenue instead of Monterey Avenue as a north-south route through Palm Desert.

2. Revitalize downtown Palm Springs
Some within the city’s inner circle claim great things are in the works. Visionaries claim that an amalgam of housing, dining, entertainment, and retail is the ticket. We say such a blend should be precise with no quick fixes.

3. More doctors and nurses
The local shortage reflects a nationwide problem. The good news is that nursing was one of this fall’s new programs at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert Campus. Combining that with College of the Desert’s nursing program will deepen the talent pool. Now to retain the new graduates …. As for the shortage of doctors, the best evidence came from a study commissioned by Eisenhower Medical Center two years ago. It concluded there’s a local shortfall of about 200
primary-care physicians. Some medical professionals suggest the number is inflated. Some also note that it’s only
the more popular doctors who have too many established patients, prompting excessive waits for new-patient

4. Leadership in tourism
Apparently, a house cleaning and reorganization was overdue at the valley’s premier tourism agency. Insiders say that Steve Morris, the second interim replacement for former Chief Executive Officer Michael Fife, has provided leadership, stability, and direction at a critical time. The CVA, to a large degree, is starting over.

5. Open-air mall in Indio
It hurt the city when longtime mall anchor Sears moved from Indio Fashion Mall to Westfield Palm Desert. But Richard Weintraub’s track record as a high-end commercial and residential developer suggests his vision for a “River-type” open-air lifestyle center at the Indio site will materialize. Some day, that is. The announcement that a Cardenas Latino-themed grocery market is taking Sears’ spot surprised many. But Weintraub has made few flawed business decisions. We await
his next move in Indio.

6. What about the Salton Sea?
Restoration of this neglected lower-valley treasure remains on the drawing board, shrouded by uncertainty because of lack of a finalized plan with a firm time table. The state’s largest inland body of water one day may be divided by a dike into a lake in the north end and a wetlands habitat in the south end. But with the state unlikely to fund such a project, that would have to come from private developers who became enraptured with the potential. We could then see a wave of activity at the sea that would impact the entire Coachella Valley. 

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