Indio is the Coachella Valley’s largest city—and faces complex challenges due to the fact that it’s the home of Coachella, Stagecoach and Desert Trip.
In this year’s city election, seven people are running for two seats on the Indio City Council: Incumbents Glenn Miller and Lupe Ramos Watson, and challengers Joan Dzuro, Gina Chapa, Sam Torres, Jackie Lopez and Noe Gutierrez.
Joan Dzuro (right), a retired human resources consultant, cited a lack of both redevelopment funds and a concise plan for redevelopment as problems in Indio, due in large part to the state of California dissolving all redevelopment agencies back in 2012.
“One of the challenges that we have is the loss of the redevelopment funds,” Dzuro said. “… When those funds were removed by Sacramento, it became harder to find funding for that. I’m very encouraged by the hiring of (the city’s new director of economic development), Carl Morgan, because he’s able to come up with plans to talk to investors and businesses, and to try to work on options for some of that funding. You always need more funds when you have a fast-growing city. Public safety needs to be able to keep up with that, and it costs money.”
Dzuro said that her 35 years in corporate human resources give her much-needed experience.
“I’ve dealt with corporations from the business side and the employee side,” she said. “I think that’s the strength I can bring to the council, and bring in jobs and create businesses for the city, and have those businesses contribute new marketable skills to our unemployed and to the younger people graduating from college.”
Gina Chapa, a community organizer who worked for Congressman Raul Ruiz, said the lack of diverse commerce is a big issue.
“We’re struggling a lot with bringing in new businesses, supporting businesses, and actually having a thriving commercial area,” she said. “Also, I see that there’s a huge disparity between different populations in Indio. In order to feel like a complete city, we need to find a way to build bridges between the different communities in Indio. I feel that there’s a lack of ownership or participation. There’s a large population of disaffected or apathetic residents who feel disconnected to their local government.”
Chapa (right) said her roots are in Indio. “I’m a longtime community organizer and community resident. I was born in Indio and went to school in Indio. I’m raising my son in Indio, and I’m connected to various communities in Indio.”
Sam Torres, a former city councilman, said Indio’s slow economic recovery has caused problems.
“We’re starting to see some signs of (recovery in) the last few years, but we haven’t seen the robust economy we thought we were going to have,” he said. “I think that there’s another issue, and that’s the fact we’re starting to see two Indios. One is the north side and the far south side along the polo fields. The south side gets a lot of attention and is a new and dynamic community. But we’ve been leaving out the communities that have always been here. The residents in these communities are the ones who were building this economy. If you look in those neighborhoods, you can see the decay.”
Why should Indio voters put Torres back on the City Council, two years after he lost a re-election bid?
“I know the job. Now I really know this city,” he said. “I tell the truth and tell it like it is: ‘This is the problem, and this is what it takes to fix it.’ I do not bow to special interests, because the city residents elect me, and I don’t have a scheme to make money off this city.”
Jackie Lopez (right), who works as the district director for Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, said Indio’s largest challenge involves commerce.
“The No. 1 issue is places to shop,” Lopez said. “People spend their money outside of Indio. One of my main goals is better economic development. There are a lot of business owners struggling to make it. On the north side of Indio, we have a village market that could be a grocery store that’s sitting there. There are people who live across the street looking for places to shop that are walkable, and they’re getting to the point where they’re relying on their children and public transportation. Even though there are places to shop on the other side of the overpass, it’s too far for them. … I also feel that hotels are another concern with these festivals in our city; a lot of our tourists are staying outside of the area.”
Lopez said her work experience makes her a good fit for the City Council.
“I’m a lifelong resident here and have eight years working for the state Legislature,” she said. “I know how to get our money back from the state. I have worked on numerous pieces of legislation at the state level, (and worked) with our congressman to leverage funds for victims of the Salton Sea.”
Noe Gutierrez—a behavioral health specialist, writer for CV Weekly and musician—said the city has not focused enough on small business.
“Downtown Indio hasn’t flourished like it should have,” he said. “I think smart growth is what we need—focusing on small-business owners and helping people get set up and started, as well as following them through. We all know the numbers of small businesses and when they open. Generally, they close within three years. We need to develop a plan we can follow.”
Gutierrez (right) said his experience in understanding people will serve him on the City Council.
“I grew up in Indio, and went to school in Indio, and I understand the backstreets, the different neighborhoods, the different types of people who live in those neighborhoods, and I understand their perception of things,” he said. “I have a huge amount of empathy given my background working as a social worker. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, so I feel I do a pretty good job doing that. … One thing I’m known for is gathering people together, getting them connected and establishing long-term relationships that are beneficial.”
The incumbents have had front-line experience dealing with Indio’s economic challenges in recent years. Glenn Miller said that while some newer areas of Indio—closer to Interstate 10—are fairly prosperous, the city’s downtown is suffering.
“Some of our older parts are taking a toll from the economic downturn,” he said. “It’s getting the actual funding availability, not only from the city of Indio, but also from our business community to invest into some of the areas that have been hit hardest due to the economic downturn, such as our downtown area.”
Miller, who has been on the council since 2008, has seen the city deal with hard financial times.
“When I first came on to the council, we had a structural $13 million deficit,” he said. “We burned through $35 million in reserves. Now we have a structurally balanced budget with over a half-million dollars in reserves, so financially, it is economically sound. But when you start talking about where you want the city to go when listening to our residents, one of the things they ask for is different kinds of shopping and business opportunities, education and investing in infrastructure.”
Miller said he should be re-elected because of his dedication to the city and the fact that he spends most of his free time working for a better Indio.
“I’m the most active and involved council member out of all the council members,” he said. “I’m very much engaged and spend all my free time working with our businesses, nonprofits and residents on what’s important to them.
“Indio will grow not only locally, but regionally. Not everyone who lives in Indio works in Indio. So the stronger the Coachella Valley is as a whole, and the more relationships we can build with College of the Desert and with our school district, it will be an advantage to the city of Indio, and I’m able to engage in those relationships.”
Councilmember Lupe Ramos Watson (right) said she’s concerned that Indio is losing out on sales-tax revenue.
“Our first and biggest challenge is to recapture some of the sales tax that is leaking out to other cities,” Watson said. “Several years ago, we conducted an economic-strategy analysis to figure out how much of our disposable income is being spent within the city boundaries to produce sales tax revenue, and how much was leaking out to other cities. We figured out that more than 50 percent of our potential sales tax revenue is leaking to other cities.”
Watson said she deserves to remain on the council due to the steps that she and her colleagues have taken regarding economic development.
“We just hired an economic development director a couple of months ago,” she said. “Because of the strategy we put together a couple of months ago, we have a plan for the downtown area that we’re completing to make sure the businesses that come into that area not only revitalize the downtown area, but add sales tax to our revenue and augment the opportunities as the ‘City of Festivals.’ With my background in planning in addition to development, I believe I’m a great asset to the city of Indio to help unfold these projects.”
We asked each of the candidates: What is the real identity of Indio?
“I believe Indio’s biggest attraction is that we’re a family-oriented city,” Dzuro said. “We emphasize our parks, the teen center and the Boys and Girls Club of America. We work together as a community with our festivals. The Tamale Festival and the Date Festival are family events. We really try to bring in the families to our community, and I think that’s what we emphasize more than anything.”
Chapa said that she feels the city government is not properly engaging with the older parts of the city.
“We know what it’s all called: ‘The City of Festivals,’” Chapa said. “That’s what it’s marketed as. It … doesn’t have just one identity. We know people understand Indio from the outside because of Coachella and the large snowbird community. As for the identity that it once had, there are many 40-plus-year residents living here who aren’t being included in the new face of Indio and the ‘City of Festivals.’ The identity is something we need to work on as a city, and (we need to) reach out to the community to build an identity so the people can feel like they’re part of the city, and that we can build our city together.”
Torres said Indio is not reaping the economic benefits it should be.
“The city of Indio is the ‘City of Festivals,’ but we used to be the second seat of the county, and we’re now in the backseat to Palm Springs,” Torres (right) said. “Any of the big events they have here, even at the casinos, they call it ‘Greater Palm Springs.’ We provide the neighbors and facilities, but the cash registers are ringing in the west valley. The local leaders have allowed that to happen and don’t have a plan to bring that identity back to Indio, and that’s where we made a huge mistake. It’s called the ‘’City of Festivals,’ but we’re really the ‘Greater Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce Backseaters.’”
Lopez said she wants Indio to once again be considered the hub of the Coachella Valley.
“We have so much potential, and we’re still growing,” she said. “On the other side of the freeway, I just found out we’re getting a Sonic and some other new places to shop and eat. The hope is to make sure we have a council member who will reinvest back into our community. We do pay taxes, and we’d like to see some of that money come back in infrastructure or attracting new places to shop and eat in downtown Indio—becoming the hub of the valley again.”
Gutierrez also said the city does not capitalize enough on the ‘City of Festivals’ label.
“There are some blinders on us,” he said. “We’re known for Coachella, but we don’t really expand on that. We’re just the site for Coachella. … We can’t rely on one-time events where people come, hang out and then leave, and probably never come back. We need a continuous inclusion of all age groups, ethnicities and everything.”
As for the identity of Indio, Miller (right) feels it has a lot to offer culturally.
“It’s the ‘City of Festivals’ and the city of culture. The city also has a bright future,” he said. “I think people see that in our rich history and being the largest city, but … multiple art developments and art pieces are going up throughout the city by world renowned artists who want to be part of the city of Indio and its culture.”
Watson said that she feels the city’s identity as the “City of Festivals” ties everything together.
“We’ve always celebrated our culture through the festivals,” she said. “It’s a community of celebration; Indio is full of hard-working individuals who work through our seasons to fulfill every need of their families, and when it’s time to celebrate, it’s done through our festivals. That is … a hard working community that understands that we need to work hard and work together to build a community that meets our needs.”