Santa Barbara’s new economic development manager Jason Harris. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Jason Harris may not be the second coming of Moses, but even if he were, it wouldn’t be enough. That much was clear from this week’s fraught Santa Barbara City Council meeting. Moses ​— ​we all know ​— ​famously parted the Red Sea. He had it considerably easier than Harris. Moses was merely leading his people out of bondage and into the Promised Land.

Harris’s challenge is to make State Street hum again.

He was hired amid much hewing and crying to be the city’s first economic development czar. Harris ​— ​who held a similar gig in Santa Monica for 10 years and one in Phoenix eight years before that ​— ​seemed a dream come true. But just days before his first day on the job, the COVID curtain fell and the lights went out all over the world. 

Tuesday was to be Harris’s official coming-out party. He introduced himself to the council and explained, in a few pithy words, how he would get the lights back on. He talked about a classic car cruise, something fun that would allow social distancing. He talked about getting accomplished musicians on street corners, public art, sidewalk sales, pop-up events; he used the word “activation” a lot, both as noun and a verb. He did not mention making State Street a pedestrian mall per se, though he alluded to a bicycle maniac event that would have partially done so. 

Somehow, he forgot to mention cannabis, prompting one cannabis operator to twice call for the creation of a downtown cannabis museum complete with a cannabis café and a processing facility. This, he said, would act as an international magnet.

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There are those in the downtown business firmament who hope Harris falls on his face. He is not local. He rents a place in Montecito during the week and returns to L.A. to be with his wife and children on the weekend. 

Worse, he is not Nina Johnson, the only person at City Hall most State Street business owners and landlords have publically agreed to trust.

Strike three is that Harris was hired by City Administrator Paul Casey, who, for many, personifies everything about smothering, slow-moving government bureaucracies.

But Harris, and his debut performance, turned out to quickly be almost beside the point.

Councilmembers Meagan Harmon and Michael Jordan expressed their collective exasperation and keening “aghastness” at how city planners have been zombie slow-walking 20 rule changes they approved last December, intended to accelerate the building of high-density housing downtown. Downtown, the experts tell us, has about one-third more retail than it can reasonably sustain. Replace that retail with housing, such as the 80 units now being proposed where Staples once was, and City Hall won’t have to “bring” people downtown; they’ll already live there. 

When Community Development chief George Buell explained that these rule finalizations would not get to the council until this September, Jordan got seriously pissed. So much steam came out of his ears, you could hear it whistle. Jordan ​— ​normally jovial on the dais ​— ​pointedly asked Buell about the status of an outside performance audit of Buell’s department that the council commissioned to the tune of $86,000. That audit is to determine just how bad the red tape in Buell’s department really is. That audit, the council was told, was running slower than expected. Yet more steam exploded out of Jordan’s ears; for a while, all you could hear was the screaming whistle.

Mayor Cathy Murillo managed to step in it, too, though the “it” in this case will wind up smearing Harris’s shoes more than her own. Murillo has assembled a 17-member special mayoral task force to propose quick fixes to jump-start the economy for when Governor Gavin Newsom lifts the COVID curtain. 

Conspicuously underrepresented on this committee were downtown property owners, without whose active or tacit support any plan ​— ​no matter how grand ​— ​will stumble. Murillo named only one owner ​— ​Barrett Reed ​— ​to her committee, but he’s a member of the planning commission and a relative newbie to city government. 

Stewing in their own steam were mega landlords Jim Knell and Richard Berti, whose vast holdings date back to the Pleistocene. They’d been frequently meeting with Murillo prior to the task force’s announcement and can be excused for thinking they’d surely be invited. Neither Knell nor Berti has ever been shy about criticizing City Hall, and on Tuesday they let Murillo have it, testifying electronically via the council’s squawk box. Knell complained he’d been “excluded and alienated.” Berti objected, “We’ve been down here 40 years and you leave us out,” adding, “Shame on you; I’m through.” When Murillo told him his allotted time was up, he shot back, “You don’t have to tell me. I’m through.”

Knell and Berti hardly speak for all the owners. And they’re far from easy. But failure to engage with State Street property owners over the years is one big reason why all efforts thus far to revitalize downtown haven’t got past the circle-jerk phase.

Also unhappy about the task force were councilmembers Alejandra Gutierrez and Oscar Gutierrez ​— ​no relation ​— ​who respectively represent the city’s east and west sides. Both were sizzled to learn about the task force by reading the paper. Both objected Murillo’s proposed roster was not sufficiently inclusive. Although Murillo worked her ass off to get both councilmembers elected, neither of the Gutierrezes exhibited any hesitation about calling the mayor out in public. 

Harris will now need to work three times harder mending fences he didn’t knock down.

Moses knew how to part the water. But does Jason Harris know how to calm them? Let’s hope no miracles prove necessary. 

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