When I spoke to the candidates for Cathedral City’s City Council two years ago, the main concern was economic development—how to generate revenue, grow new businesses, and continue to come back from the devastation of the Great Recession of 2008.
Today, the city is undeniably in a better financial position. Revenues from the new and growing marijuana industry have been a boon—but each candidate I spoke to this year acknowledged that Cathedral City still has a long way to go.
This year’s election is being done differently: Under threat of a civil-rights lawsuit, Cathedral City—like many other California municipalities—has switched from at-large elections to district-based elections, and three of those five new district seats are up for election this year. The city is also eliminating the elected mayor’s seat; from now on, the position will rotate among the five council members. As a result of all this, two incumbents—Mayor Stan Henry and Shelley Kaplan—are not running for re-election.
One incumbent is running—Mark Carnevale is facing Juan Carlos Vizaga in the new District 3. In the new District 4, four candidates are facing off: Sergio Espericueta, Ernesto Gutierrez, Rick Saldivar and John Rivera. In District 5, voters will choose between Raymond Gregory and Laura Ahmed.
Four of the eight candidates—Juan Carlos Vizaga, Sergio Espericueta, Ernesto Gutierrez and Laura Ahmed—did not respond to e-mail requests and phone messages from the Independent. Here’s what the responding candidates had to say.
Mark Carnevale said he’s hoping to continue the work he started after being elected to his first term in 2014.
“I was a new candidate, and Cathedral City had planted the seed,” said Carnevale, who owns Nicolino’s Italian Restaurant with his wife. “There were a lot of development possibilities and a lot of empty buildings. There was a lot of work to be done, and I’ve always accepted challenges in my life. I thought I’d like to be involved in it and throw my personal background as a businessman in there, because a city is run different than a business. When the dice was rolled, we came up with a really good council.
He said the state’s elimination of redevelopment agencies earlier this decade took a toll.
“We’ve really done some good things with the efforts of the prior councils, but the redevelopment money was taken away,” he said. “We put some ideas together with a lot of goal-settings. The economy turned around; cannabis fell into our lap; the economy fell in our lap; and we started renting the buildings, so Cathedral City is moving forward. Timing is everything. We work together as a team to move forward.”
Carnevale said he’s fine with the move to district-based elections.
“It means being a little bit closer to the constituents there, and they can reach out to you,” Carnevale said. “But I’ll still represent all five districts. I don’t care if someone comes to me from District 5, saying, ‘Mark, I have a problem.’ I’ll be there. I’m going to the city manager, saying, ‘Hey, this person in District 5 has a situation.’ That doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Carnevale said he still sees economic development as Cathedral City’s key issue.
“We have to get the downtown filled up. We have to get the entryway from the Interstate 10 freeway onto Date Palm more conducive and get some building going along there,” he said. “We definitely would like to see the annex of Thousand Palms. That’s going to take some work. For me, being a businessman, if I want to build something, I’ll build it. If I want to knock down a wall, I’ll knock down a wall. But the city (red tape) is unbelievable. First, you have to get property entitlements and go through a process. If there’s redevelopment money involved, you have to get approval from their board. It could take years just to get a decision made to build. That’s frustrating. I’d like to see fast-line development here and want to see stuff grow fast.
“Cathedral City has property, and we have the lowest rents in businesses. That’s why we’ve seen 30 restaurants open over the past year and a half.”
Rick Saldivar is a newcomer to politics and was inspired by his church to run for City Council.
“I’m a pastor at a church in Cathedral City. Our main lead pastor asked a couple of the other pastors to go to City Council meetings,” Saldivar said. “I’ve lived in Cathedral City all of my life. … I love what they do for the city, and when they started doing district (elections), I decided to run for my neighborhood, because I feel I have a real pulse of the residents I live with in my neighborhood.”
Saldivar said people in his district have concerns about a lot of day-to-day issues that don’t reflect well on a city that is trying grow economically.
“(People are concerned about) homelessness, drug abuse, youth-at-risk, and youth in general,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of senior citizens who are raising their grandchildren. That’s something that has become new to me. I think the homelessness issue needs attention, but I know that’s a valley-wide problem.”
Saldivar thinks small businesses could help solve the city’s economic problems.
“Cathedral City needs to have some sort of program or education on how to start your own business,” he said. “After all the door-knocking I’ve done, I’ve learned there are a lot of entrepreneur-minded people in our backyard—(potential) business owners who have had ideas, but have nothing to educate them on that. How can we make them self-sufficient and add a storefront to our city? I ran into a lady who does garage sales in different areas of the city with different families. She was so business-savvy, and I asked her why she didn’t have a storefront somewhere. It was because she didn’t know how.”
John Rivera is an architect who says his dedication to public service led to his City Council run. He currently serves on the city’s Architectural Review Committee, and formerly served on the Planning Commission.
“I have 25 years of service, including two years with the city of Palm Springs and 15 with Cathedral City,” Rivera said. “I was also a scoutmaster in Palm Springs for seven years with Boy Scouts of America. I tell people I am doing this because this is what my dad would have done. My dad was the type of person who did a lot for people and for family and friends. He was always the guy who stepped up to help. He would never ask for anything in return. That was just his nature.”
Rivera expressed concern about the lack of new construction in Cathedral City.
“We have a lot of growth with the cannabis industry, and that’s been a blessing,” he said. “The thing I see, being an architect by profession, is a lot of business and construction in Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert—but none in Cathedral City. I think it’s a sign that there’s something not happening, and that needs to be corrected. Being an architect and being on the Planning Commission, I’ve been at both ends of projects and have gotten them through. I know the system, and I know ways to streamline and make changes for a faster process to make things more business-friendly.”
Rivera also said the city needs to look at economic development in a more-modern way.
“In the past four years, there have been 30 new restaurants that have popped up. We’ve had a couple of big-box stores shut down, Burlington Coat Factory being one of them. The big-box stores are disappearing with e-commerce,” he said. “One of the things I’ve been focused on trying to get is what I refer to as a millennial city. We have a downtown that is made largely of vacant lots. When the city was master-planned back in the 1990s, it was done by architects in San Francisco that designed our city based on models in the 1970s and the 1960s. I think that was a waste of taxpayer money, and we need to look forward on how millennials will live in our city. They aren’t golfers; they don’t live the lifestyle that baby boomers live, and trying to tailor a new look for our city that is millennial-friendly is going to take a lot of forward-thinking and a lot of changes, but will create something that is very unique and will draw a lot of potential home-buyers.”
Raymond Gregory, running in District 5, retired in 2017 after 25 years with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
“One of the reasons I retired was because I was tired of being removed from my own community,” Gregory said. “My intention when I retired was to work on my house and work on things I felt were neglected—but also to volunteer in my community and with the city. When I retired (in September 2017), I started looking for opportunities and talking to people. People said that with (my) experience in law enforcement and (my) experience with government—and I had gone back to school, getting a master’s in business management—they said I’d be a good City Council member.”
Gregory, like other candidates, talked about how the recession hit Cathedral City particularly hard.
“Cathedral City had some challenges before, but when the recession came, a lot of the stores and businesses that the city had attracted started to close, and bigger stores moved away,” he said. “We’re left with a lot of empty storefronts. We have residential and commercial portions that were started to be developed and were never finished. … Quality of life is related to economic development, because if you’re not generating the revenue, you’re not able to build up your public safety or maintain your roads, and you don’t have the recreational opportunities such as parks. So there are a number of quality-of-life issues that need to be addressed, but economic development is the No. 1 challenge we have.”
Gregory expressed hope that tourism dollars and new businesses could come to Cathedral City.
“We need to build up a good tax base, and if I had my wish, we’d build up hotels, because it’s a good tax for the city to make revenue off of,” he said. “We’re a west valley location with a lot of the same amenities that our neighbors in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage have. I’d like to see hotels, tourism and recreational businesses. We have to continue to build on our arts and culture district and attract small businesses related to that. I’d like to see some green technology come in, and something to offer great jobs for people who live here so they don’t have to drive elsewhere to work.”
Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.