SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Santa Maria is on the move. The Central Coast city is heading into a future that is sure to be defined by change.
"I think in 10 years you're going to say 'wow' where was this and this is really cool and I want to be here," said Suzanne Singh, Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Director.
The city is far different than it was just a few years ago, adding 30,000 people since 2000.
Consistent growth that outpaces the state average is expected to continue, with projections showing an increase from a current 106,280 people to 120,000 over the next 20 years.
"We are in a good position to be able to grow," said Santa Maria City Manager Jason Stilwell.
As city manager, Stilwell is constantly looking into the future, especially at areas of concern, such as housing.
"There's some undeveloped, vacant land, but more importantly, there's some underutilized on major corridors where we can further redevelop or have better use of that land, so that's going to be the focus going forward," said Stilwell.
Just two weeks ago, the city council approved a major mixed use building at the corner of Broadway and Main St. The highly-touted project is a major component for the long-term vision to revolutionize downtown.
"Once that is constructed, we hope that the neighboring properties should spruce up their property or do something different," said Chuen Ng, Santa Maria Director of Community Development.
City leaders have long worked for many years to try and revitalize downtown. Now, at long last, there's finally momentum.
"In the last four months, I've had requests from developers looking to come into Santa Maria," said Singh. "I've done quite a few feasibility studies for different types of businesses, hotel, huge restaurant chains and then developers. I think we can make something happen."
Another major area of concern for the City is the long-term viability of the Santa Maria Town Center mall. Currently for sale, the building has been a topic of speculation for years.
"Across the country, you're seeing malls evolving, where sometimes the property owner will do something to turn it inside-out, to add additional facades or pads on the outskirts of the mall, so i'm anticipating similar where the mall could evolve into something different," said Ng.
As the City juggles retail and commercial issues, attracting new jobs, especially good paying, head-of-household positions remains a top priority.
"People need to know Santa Maria is open for business and we're open to work with those companies that want to come into our community," Singh said. "I think as long as we keep going on the path that we are, steering towards that course of looking for those higher paying type companies to come, we should be fine."
In order to get the higher-paying companies to come to Santa Maria, a full recruitment effort is already underway, especially for newer companies with ties to both local universities.
"Our shift more recently has been to businesses that are incubating or beginning in Isla Vista and Goleta that are related to UCSB and businesses in San Luis Obispo," Stilwell said. "As they outgrow those two communities to be able to come to Santa Maria, have the Santa Maria workforce be able to support them before they outgrow the area entirely."
A key addition that could help out bring in tech and manufacturing companies is to add more educational opportunities.
"It's been a council priority to have a four-year university in the Santa Maria Valley." said Stilwell. "We're working with Hancock College to see if they could start offering four-year degrees. We're looking at a satellite college from one of the Cal State schools. We're looking at private universities. Anything to fill that need."
Another key area for Santa Maria is the agriculture industry. It has always been the driving economic force and should continue to be.
"Ag will stay strong. It's remarkable how that industry is evolving," said Stilwell. "They are continually able to grow more and be more productive in the Santa Maria Valley and we expect them to be here."
As Santa Maria continues to grow, the City may soon cast its eye onto nearby farmland as room to build.
"We've heard from landowners that they would like to be able to annex or be able to serve," Stilwell said. "I know there's pressure from the hospital to be able to have room for growth, so there are a few areas we might look at to be able to expand."
Any possible annexation of nearby unincorporated land, perhaps moving east of Highway 101, would likely be many years away.
"It requires a lot of studies and it would require a public input and outside agency input, but it would be a question we're confronted with as we manage growth, so I would say it's in consideration, but would require more information," said Ng.
To help Santa Maria prepare for the future, it will soon for the first time in many years begin updating its General Plan.
"(It's) is a vision document for the city," said Ng. "The vision document lays out a vision for the next 20 to 30 years."
The multi-faceted document will include many components, including the City's goals, objectives, policies and implementation measures. It's a crucial framework that will rely heavily on public input.
"It will be a full public outreach effort and we want to make it meaningful and we want to make sure people are heard," Ng said. "We'll utilize our website, we'll come out with surveys. It will be a very robust effort."
No matter what Santa Maria eventually looks like or becomes, there's something about the city that many believe will always stay the same.
"It's a place where people will come, they will feel welcome, they will feel like its home and part of what makes Santa Maria so Santa Maria is the people and i don't see that changing ever."