Located just 10 miles east of Pasadena, the city of Monrovia offers a shining example of how a powerful state-local partnership helped create jobs and transform a once-blighted community. Over the course of four decades, city leaders used tax-increment financing to save Monrovia and today the city is viewed as one of the most favorable for business in Los Angeles County. This success story is featured in Monrovia’s
Strong Cities | Strong State profile.
Mayor Mary Ann Lutz tells a sad joke about the condition of the city she loves back in the 1970s: “Would the last person in Monrovia please turn out the lights?” But it wasn’t really a joke because the city had become crime ridden and the historic Old Town, with buildings constructed more than 100 years ago, was 80 percent vacant. The city suffered further when the construction of Interstate 210 in the 1970s cut a section of Monrovia in half.
The city began in the 1970s by using tax-increment financing
to invest in the once-vibrant Old Town. City leaders reimagined the area and ultimately created wider sidewalks, planted vegetation and installed medians. Then the city took on Huntington Drive, the major thoroughfare that crosses a number of cities in the San Gabriel Valley. When city leaders moved the area zoned for car dealerships to another location to provide the visibility needed to thrive, they used tax-increment financing to repurpose the area. By the mid-1980s, Monrovia had to add major hotels to serve people visiting neighboring tourist attractions like the Rose Bowl and Arcadia’s race track.
The city focused on the area that had been cut off by I-210, which was “ugly and scary” in Mayor Lutz’s words, and created a new retail center called Huntington Oaks Shopping Area, anchored by a grocery store and a department store. Instead of spreading out, Monrovia used tax-increment financing to revitalize areas of the city in its core through infill development.
These major projects not only brought new businesses to Monrovia but also created new employment opportunities, similar to such efforts in cities throughout California. On an annual basis, tax-increment financing supported more than 300,000 full- and part-time private sector jobs annually statewide, including approximately 170,000 construction jobs.
Today, Monrovia’s Huntington Drive can be divided into two distinct and productive segments: East Huntington is the city’s high tech corridor and West Huntington is the commercial corridor. The city prides itself on the weekly Family Festival that draws 5,000 people and its successful efforts to sustain “mom and pop” retail as well as attract major high tech and other industries to the city. Trader Joe’s moved its headquarters here, and the international engineering firm Worley Parsons did too. AeroVironment, a company that manufactures drones, is also located on Monrovia’s Huntington Drive.
“This is where the city thrives, where we get most of our sales tax revenues and where we create most of our jobs. It put Monrovia on the map,” says Darlene Sanchez, senior program coordinator in Monrovia’s Economic Development Division. “The tax-increment tool allowed us to leverage what we had. In the early days, we couldn’t get anyone to build a business in Monrovia. The tool gave us the ability to purchase land, clear it, restore it environmentally and establish the collaboration necessary to attract businesses. Today businesses are knocking on our door.”
Unfortunately the passage of AB 1484 in 2012 forced Monrovia to stop the city’s largest project using tax-increment financing. What was to be an 80-acre transit-oriented development in the southern part of the city remains largely dilapidated with the exception of a corporation yard for light rail. The Gold Line station is scheduled to reach Monrovia in 2015, but development of the supporting residential, retail and other businesses in the city’s plan won’t be realized.
And that’s devastating to Mayor Lutz. “Community and economic development takes time. We were working our way through Monrovia and when we came to the southern part, we lost the tax increment tool. We need a tool that gives us a funding stream to assemble and prepare blighted property to attract developers to come into our community and build a project.”
It’s uncertain what the future will bring for the city’s economic development. “Monrovia was truly saved by the tax increment financing tool. That’s not an understatement. We’re struggling now to figure out what is next and we wonder how we’ll be able to maintain any growth without it,” said Lutz.