Indio City Manager Bryan Montgomery.

Bryan Montgomery took over as Indio’s city manager on May 13, arriving from Oakley, Calif., where he had been the city manager for 17 years. Before that, Montgomery was the city manager in Mesquite, Nev., and held city roles in Rupert, Idaho; Alamogordo, N.M.; and Provo, Utah.

Despite these credentials, his hiring was not without controversy. Councilmember Oscar Ortiz abstained from the vote to approve Montgomery’s contract, claiming the hiring process was flawed and possibly unlawful; Councilmember Waymond Fermon voted against Montgomery’s hiring.

Nearly four months into his tenure, however, Montgomery seems to have made a smooth transition into his responsibilities on behalf of Coachella Valley’s largest city. At the City Council meeting on Aug. 30, the council members challenged Montgomery, in a light-hearted fashion, to attain a goal that has been front of mind in Indio for decades: Complete a meaningful and dynamic revitalization of the Indio downtown area, as well as the city’s Highway 111 corridor.

“No matter how much every city manager that we’ve encountered tries to get away from it, it’s always going to be No. 1 in the council’s eyes,” Councilmember Lupe Ramos Amith said that evening.

Mayor Elaine Holmes joked: “I’m sensing a bronze statue of the city manager if he can get Highway 111 and the downtown done.”

So … can Montgomery get Highway 111 and downtown revitalization done?

“I’m only in my third month (on this job) now,” Montgomery said during a recent interview with the Independent. “… Yes, the residents want it, and the council wants that focus.”

Montgomery pointed out that significant progress on the goal has already been made.

“We have College of the Desert, which has one large facility downtown, and they’re building two more that have already been approved and funded,” Montgomery said. “One of them will start (construction) early next year, and the other later next year. They’ll all be (together) in kind of an L-shape. The city has provided the land, and we’re working on a joint parking facility that will support downtown (businesses) as well as the school operations.

“There’s a 70-unit market-rate apartment complex that’s been approved and funded. The ground floor is planned to be kind of a pub/restaurant, and there will be three stories of housing. Since the city owns almost all of downtown, we have an opportunity to sell the land to the development that we think is best. We have breweries and other restaurants looking at downtown, and we’re working on a downtown events park. The idea there is to have something that the whole valley can count on. … It’s a park area now, but we’re going to improve it. We’re calling it the ‘Living Room,’ and it’s (a space) where people can gather. So with the housing project, the college, the events space and a couple of restaurant/brewery opportunities, I think we’re creating some synergy where people will want to be downtown.”

Montgomery cited housing as a key to revitalizing the Highway 111 corridor through Indio.

“It’s the main street of the entire valley, and there’s much more opportunity there,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that when we bring housing to these areas, it will lift up the commercial components, and it will give a new fresh face to the landscape. So we’re working on a specific plan, and housing is a big part of it. Some of it is going to be vertical. That will give you some skyline. … We’ll provide some transitional housing opportunities. … When you’re priced out of a very expensive home, and you may not even qualify for affordable housing, and you don’t necessarily want to live in a trailer, you could live in a nice apartment complex that isn’t high-priced and that you can afford. That may not be your long-term goal, but it gives you the opportunity to get going and make a place of your own. The Highway 111 corridor is ideal for that.”

Montgomery said he and his team have been working hard on a “clear strategic plan”—something he said has been missing in recent years. That work has included community surveys to find out what Indio’s residents want and need.

“We’re working on seven or eight areas of focus, and within each area of focus, there’s a goal. And under each one of those goals, there’s a list of specific action items which, if we achieve, we accomplish the goal,” Montgomery said. “One will be public safety, for sure. … The community was pretty clear that ‘community beautification’ was a priority. Not that that surprised me, but it was such a large number who felt that we really needed to work on the entryways, and a general cleanup, and how we maintain not only the city properties, but also to encourage businesses to maintain their properties. So a beautification program is high on the priority list.”

Success, of course, hinges on whether funding is available.

“A key component to achieving a lot of what will be in the strategic plan is the extension of the sales-tax measure that our voters approved a handful of years ago,” Montgomery said. “It’s a sales-tax increment (increase). Most of the cities in the valley have one, but our (increase) sunsets. The City Council unanimously agreed to put it on this November’s ballot. It will be a special election, because typically, the elections are held in even years. Measure E will extend the (existing) sales tax. It won’t raise it; it will only extend it. But I think we’ll need those resources in the long term if we’re going to achieve all these cool things. But the voters will get to decide.”

Would the Measure E sales-tax increment remain in effect in perpetuity, if voters approve it in November?

“The voters can step forward at any time to undo any tax,” Montgomery said. “When (the original measure) was initially approved, it had a 20-year sunset. The new version that will be on the ballot would remain until the voters ended it.”

Another high profile issue concerns the discussion of regular passenger-railroad service between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley, as well as points east. In Oakley, Montgomery took part in negotiations between that city and Amtrak; in the resulting deal, Oakley got a station on the San Joaquins trainline, which will connect the city directly to Oakland, Sacramento and Bakersfield when construction is completed on the station next year.

“I want people to understand that we want people to reach out. In fact, I put my cell number on my business card. We want you to help us address what’s at hand.”

indio city manager bryan montgomery

“We need to find alternative transportation options, and (the railroad’s presence) is really what caused Indio to be founded in the beginning,” Montgomery said. “It was a train stop for goods and services as well as people. So, almost exactly where it all started here in Indio, we have a multi-modal transit center already set up. We’ve got about 200 parking spaces already paved and landscaped. Right now, we only have a small mobile modular unit (as an office) for Greyhound, but they’re onsite right now. It’s right next to the railroad tracks and near our downtown. It was used in the late 2000s for the Coachella festival, and it was a trial run for bringing people from the L.A. or Orange County areas here to the festival. I’ve heard that it worked, so is this something that could possibly be done (permanently)? Typically, passenger rail has to be subsidized pretty significantly, but Amtrak and the federal government have been putting money into passenger rail all across the country.

“So there’s a study ongoing led by the RCTC (Riverside County Transportation Commission) that’s in the environmental-review phase right now. We’ve provided some comments, and we certainly support for the concept (of having) a platform stop in Indio. We’re the largest city (in the Coachella Valley), kind of a good central location right off Interstate 10, so it’s easy to get to for others.”

Montgomery admitted the new railway was a longshot.

“(The existing line) is a Union Pacific line that runs a lot of freight, so I think the contemplation is that there would need to be a separate commuter line, with its own set of new tracks,” he said. “So it would be an expensive venture. But if there was ever a time, what with all of this federal money flowing, perhaps it’s now. The other thing is the logistics. There’s this (debate) about what’s cheaper, to send goods by truck or to send them by rail. But the interstate is just getting too clogged. They’re going to have to spend money some way. Would we rather put people on a train, or would we rather put them in their cars? That’s an easy question to answer, environmentally and safety-wise. So, yes, the City Council is all onboard and pushing hard, but there are hundreds of millions of dollars that need to be brought to bear.”

Indio recently announced an extension of its agreement with Goldenvoice, the producers of the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals.

“Sometimes they say, ‘You don’t understand what you have until you lose it,’ but after two years of not being able to have (the festivals) due to the COVID-19 situation, you truly learn,” he said. “While it’s not a huge revenue source for us—it’s like 2% of our overall budget, and not hundreds of millions, which some people think—it is so important to the community. Businesses suffered, and all of these subcontractors that are part of putting on the festivals … lost out. … What the extension means is that, barring some sort of pandemic, Goldenvoice will be here at least through 2050, providing that type of economic vitality to thousands of businesses and people, and to the city coffers as well.”

Wrapping up, Montgomery reflected on his first few months in Indio.

“I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of City Council members over the last 20-something years—and this group listens,” Montgomery said. “… When I arrived, they said, ‘Let’s reach out. Let’s find out what the citizens want us to accomplish, and what their concerns are.’ So that’s been happening over the last couple of months. I want people to understand that we want people to reach out. In fact, I put my cell number on my business card. We want you to help us address what’s at hand. It’s the old adage: ‘See something. Say something.’ We want to be a listening ear.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...