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21 May 2013

On Indio: Mayor Elaine Holmes Talks About the Future of the Coachella Valley’s Largest City

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Indio Mayor Elaine Holmes Indio Mayor Elaine Holmes

While other Coachella Valley cities tend to get more attention, it’s the city of Indio that—by a fairly wide margin—has the largest population.

With more than 80,000 residents, it’s one of California’s fastest-growing cities; it’s also the home of the Coachella and Stagecoach music bonanzas. In fact, city leaders recently gave Indio the tagline “The City of Festivals.”

However, a drive down once-bustling Fargo Street in the downtown/old town part of Indio reveals that all is not well: Most of that population growth has been in the suburbs, and the city’s core features numerous vacant, boarded-up buildings. Meanwhile, the city government’s reputation is still recovering following the 2010 retirement of Indio City Manager Glenn Southard following a series of financial controversies. (Editor's Note: Elaine Holmes wants to make it clear that she was a supporter of Southard and his "positive approach to Indio.")

But there are signs of progress in downtown Indio, too. For starters, the College of the Desert’s new East Valley Center is rising on Oasis Street, and is slated to open in a year or so. And back down on Fargo Street, the quirky Indio Performing Arts Center is drawing people to downtown for a variety of entertainment.

One of the people who is leading the charge to improve both Indio itself and its reputation is Elaine Holmes. She and her husband, Doug, gave up jobs in corporate America to move from San Clemente to Indio in 2004, when they bought PJ’s Desert Trophies and Gifts, located in downtown Indio on Miles Avenue. During her nine years in Indio, she’s gotten increasingly involved in the city leadership. She was on the board of directors of the Indio Chamber of Commerce, and 2 1/2 years ago, she was elected to the five-member Indio City Council. This year, she’s serving as the city’s mayor (a title that rotates among members on an annual basis).

The Independent recently sat down with Holmes at PJ’s Desert Trophies and Gifts to talk about the city of Indio, her involvement, the city’s future—and even medical marijuana.

So, why Indio?

The people. The people in this community are wonderful. They are very giving; they’re very generous with their own selves and their own time. They are people who are eager to see other people successful. … You just can’t help but get involved with that, and we did, and we really got engaged.

Was there something special—something different—that you noticed about Indio when you moved here that, for example, you hadn’t seen in San Clemente?

It’s a whole different way of life, and, certainly, Indio is a smaller community. It’s a tightly knit, more-close-knit community. When were in San Clemente, because we both worked in corporate America, we didn’t have time to get involved with the community, so when we moved here, we became more engaged.

What made you decide to jump into political life? Even in a relatively small town, politics is politics …

I am a businessperson—really, a small-business-person now—and I felt that I needed to be an advocate for other small-business folks in the city of Indio. That really was the first launch. Secondarily, we are involved with this old town, or downtown, and became a part of the revitalization. I saw the potential; there’s so much potential in Indio, up by the freeway, but also in this old town area, and I really wanted to be involved and be a part of it.

The first time I drove through here (downtown/old town Indio), I went: “Whoa. This looks rough,” especially the part that IPAC is on (Fargo Street). Here (Miles Avenue), it looks nicer, and you’ve got the big (College of the Desert east) campus going in just a few streets down, which is great, but, frankly, there’s a long way to go. Tell me what steps you want the city to take to get it so downtown Indio is vital again.

It’s been a work in process for several years. We began the revitalization process before the downturn in the economy, on Miles Avenue here, predominantly. … Here on Miles Avenue, we redid all of the electrical, the underground (work), the sewers, the water. We tore up the streets and created a walkable area, a well-lit area … because before you can entice business in, you have to have water; you have to have sewer. If a restaurant comes in, you have to have the ability to put in, say, a grease trap. So we put in all of the infrastructure, all of the not-pretty things, first, so we could then work on the rest of it. College of the Desert is something that’s been in the works for several years, and we’re seeing it come out of the ground.

The great thing about Indio, and about this downtown: It used to be that they called it the hub of the valley. This downtown area used to be absolutely thriving with shops and visitors and all of that stuff, and then, as things changed, and the world changed, it continued to deteriorate. … People have a perception that the area’s rough. There’s not an issue with (violent) crime. There’s theft; there are theft issues, sure, but there are theft issues everywhere, particularly now with the downturn in the economy. … We work day and night here; we always have at this store. That’s what small businesses do. We saw the fact that this was a safe place; it had just fallen into disrepair, and I when (my husband) Doug and I look at something that’s in disrepair, we think: “Ah ha! Potential. We can fix it up.”

Concrete steps: How is downtown/old town Indio going to become a place that’s vital again?

It starts with College of the Desert and the fact that there will be 3,000 students at peak enrollment in the downtown area. You need people here, day and night, in order to make an area successful, because that’s what will drive retail and restaurants and the housing component. … (On May 15), the council approved moving forward with mixed use, so there will be restaurants and retail on the bottom, and living (spaces) on top.

Where?

Right across the street from the College of the Desert, there’s an empty lot. … The new detention center’s coming up; the new county administration center is also coming up, so in the next three years, there will probably be an additional 5,000 people in the downtown area. … Both (the detention center and the county administration building already) exist on a smaller scale; both are going to be torn down and rebuilt on a much larger scale. … There will be a captive audience here.

If it were up to you, would downtown Indio become like El Paseo or downtown Palm Springs is, in the sense that they are draws for tourists and people from elsewhere in the valley alike? Or are you content with Indio being a hub mainly for people who live in the east valley?

The vision for downtown/old town Indio is that it’ll be a combination of both. There will be specialty retail and restaurants. … When you think of the number of people who come into the desert, from Canada and tourists, it will be a draw for them. As it stands now, there are (already) some eclectic and unique stores. But also, with the college and the people who live here, there will be services, so people from the east end of the valley will come here, because there is something specific here that they need. So it will satisfy both as it evolves.

There’s going to be a law school here. Ultimately, my vision is: We have the (Indio) Performing Arts Center; we have the CV Art Center. … The (Coachella Valley History) Museum is just a block away. So, if you will, it’s arts, culture and entertainment, and you’ve got that educational base. So you have people moving here, and you’ll have things to do, places to go and places to eat. That’s ultimately where I want it to be.

How does the state dissolving all of the redevelopment districts affect Indio? Did it hurt the efforts badly?

It did. It threw us a curveball, there’s no doubt about it, because the city amassed quite a bit of this property several years ago, so we could bundle or package it to developers, and they could have a large area. When the state took that over, it all came to a screeching halt. There are challenges with it. Right now, we’re trying to deal with the state of California in terms of leasing some of the building space, and looking at disposition agreements in terms of how we go about selling (the property) to specific organizations or developers for future development. It slowed things down in terms of the forward momentum.

Let’s get a past downtown for a bit and talk about the big festivals. First of all, does it annoy you that everyone calls (Goldenvoice’s biggest festival) Coachella, when it actually takes place in Indio?

You know what? It’s all part of the vibe. It would be great to have Indio in the name, but … I think most people know that the festivals are in Indio.

There was a move last year by a fellow City Council member (Ascencion “Sam” Torres) to add a large tax to Coachella tickets. That got shot down, and you were opposed to it. Since then, Goldenvoice has signed a new agreement to stay in Indio (through at least 2030, and to possibly add two more festival weeks, perhaps in the fall). What are your goals, from the city’s standpoint, in terms of the festivals—bringing people here, what Goldenvoice does, etc.?

First of all, Goldenvoice does an enormous amount with the city, particularly with the kids. I think people see the concerts, and that’s what they associate with Goldenvoice, but what we see of Goldenvoice are people who really spend a lot of time and money focused on the community. We had the (remote area medical) health thing at the fairgrounds just before the concerts. They play soccer with the kids; they support the teen center, the Boys and Girls Club, so they’re already engaged in the community, and we want them to continue with that engagement, and to an extent, become even more engaged.

People come from all over the world; that is so neat, and I want, from a business perspective, for all the businesses in the community to reap the benefits of those tourists who are in town. … I also want the world to see the city, and some people are going to move here, and to have people from different cultures, and different parts of the country and world, to move here, to me, adds more to the eclectic flavor of the city that Indio is.

How do you get the word out to the festival-goers that, “Hey, you should actually stop and look at what’s going on in Indio?”

At (the May 15) council meeting, we put together an ad-hoc committee—I did as the mayor—to look at how we can engage the tourists and the people who come here for the concerts to let them know about all the restaurants and great places to go in the city. So we’re going to be pulling together a committee, myself and Mayor Pro-Tem (Michael) Wilson, with some of the local businesses, to address that very issue, and to see how we can be creative to drive people to our businesses.

Would you like to see more businesses come in that could benefit from the festivals? From what I understand, Indio's first new hotel in decades, a Holiday Inn Express, is soon opening.

Absolutely. … It’s “The City of Festivals.” Let’s look at more festivals. Let’s look at something that the city does every month that draws people and tourists into our city that therefore drives retail, and drives hotels and motels. … The more people we have here on a consistent basis, the more of a need we have for the hotels, the restaurants and the retail, because they’ll be able to sustain themselves.

I want to specifically ask you about IPAC. It’s such an eclectic, work-in-progress venue, and they do some pretty cool stuff there; in what direction would you like to see IPAC move?

… There are three components: community theater; a learning environment, particularly for the kids, because music and the arts just aren’t in schools any more; and a place to hold concerts. There are so many local bands here; let’s have a venue for them to play and perform.

Regarding medical marijuana: Right now, Palm Springs is the only city in the valley that allows dispensaries, and a lot of medical-marijuana dispensaries and collectives are closing up shop (after the California Supreme Court ruled that local governments could prohibit them). If it were up to you, where would Indio fall in terms of allowing dispensaries or other medical-marijuana businesses?

It’s come before the council once, I think, a couple of years ago. I think all of us would look at what a medical-marijuana clinic would bring to the city. We’d look at it on a case-by-case basis and decide if that was something that would be a benefit to the city and to the residents of the city. What decision would be, I don’t know. I know that the council is pretty open-minded or is very good at taking each item that comes to us on a case-by-case basis and asking the questions … to determine if it’s something we want in our city, whether it’s medical marijuana or a business.

The story that we did for our first print-version cover story was on growth. We got some numbers from the Southern California Association of Governments that showed Indio, Coachella and especially the nearby unincorporated areas were going to see the bulk of the growth in the valley between now and 2035. With that growth comes challenges: Indio’s going to have to deal with infrastructure, new roadways, and so on. What kind of a role is the Indio City Council taking for Indio to prepare to be a city of more than 110,000 people by 2035?

We’re updating our general plan, first of all. We always look at infrastructure improvements, and we do infrastructure improvements every year, whether it’s to our roads, or whether (it involves water)—we have the Indio Water Authority, our own water agency—and we are constantly upgrading that in terms of water storage and our ability to deliver water to our residents and businesses. (Growth is) something that’s forefront in our minds all of the time. Our city has grown, for the last 15 years or so, and continues to grow, so we have to be ready for that, and we’re constantly looking at: Where do we need to make changes? Where do we need to upgrade? That’s always top of mind. …

The east end of the valley has the highest number of youth here, so the need for services and the environment for these young people to be entertained or to eat or to hang out is critical. (We need) parks. My dream would be an aquatic center—something that was envisioned several years ago, and the economy kind of took that away from us. … That’s the future … the kids. That ties in to education and the whole economic engine, to have the jobs here for these kids to go to.

One of the things I really miss in terms of living in the Coachella Valley is a full-fledged four-year university here …

It’s coming.

It’s coming? Tell me about it.

I want to defer to Jan Harnik, the mayor of Palm Desert, but what drives that is a student population to go to these schools, and therefore, when they come out of school, the ability to find jobs and careers. … As the population grows … it’s a cycle. That’s how it works. As the desert is growing, so is the need for a university.

This is your first foray into elected office. Are you content to stay on the Indio City Council …

Absolutely.

… Or might you have bigger plans down the line?

No. I am all about being involved with the city. The reason I got on the City Council, as I said, is to be an advocate for small business. I like the city; I like being an advocate; I like being a part of the growth. And that’s the beginning, the middle and the end of my political career.

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