Long considered a poor stepchild in Orange County, Santa Ana is working to turn around its image. The city is pressing forward with downtown redevelopment efforts, and the midtown Civic Center continues to cement its position as a center of government. The city recently landed the first Mexico Trade Center, beating out Los Angeles and San Diego for the office. And business leaders have undertaken a "branding" campaign that they hope to convert into a major marketing effort. "They appear to be doing a great job downtown. They are preserving a lot of the old buildings," said Alan Saltzstein, chair of the division of Political Science and Criminal Justice at California State University, Fullerton. "It does seem like they are doing a lot of interesting things despite not having a lot of money." Some of those interesting things come with a measure of controversy. As the city focuses on downtown redevelopment, some people in the Latino community fear they are being forced out. Downtown's Fourth Street has long been a bustling hub of retail trade — nearly all of it conducted in Spanish. But a thriving artist's village and some new offices have brought a hip, yuppie-type crowd to the district. With a population of 338,000, Santa Ana is Orange County's largest city. Over time, that population has become increasingly Latino. The 2000 Census found that 76% of Santa Ana's residents are Hispanic, up from 44% of a population of 200,000 only 20 years ago. In recent years, Santa Ana's overcrowded public schools have become dominated by Latino students. "It's unique in that it has been more of a center for Latino heritage in Orange County," Saltzstein observed. Santa Ana certainly did not fit with the upper-middle-class, white bread image portrayed by much of Orange County. More significantly, the city struggled with one of the county's highest crime rates and with extensive poverty in some neighborhoods. But those conditions helped the city win status as a federal "Empowerment Zone," one of only 15 such zones designated in 1999 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The designation was supposed to come with $100 million in seed money for healthcare, workforce training, housing, economic development, youth development, community safety and transportation and other programs. The city established a nonprofit corporation in late 1999 to run the Empowerment Zone program. Since then, officials have developed a large number of partners and have connected entities that were not working together, said Shawna Lahey, zone manager. So, for example, workforce development groups are collaborating with economic development planners, and healthcare organizations are working with child-care advocates. Empowerment Zone programs have put about 500 zone residents into jobs, and officials are working to build a community center in a long-neglected part of town. However, federal funding has not come through as expected. Congress must allocate the city's Empowerment Zone funding every year. The first two fiscal years, Santa Ana received only $3 million and $3.6 million, respectively. This year (2000-01), Santa Ana got $12.3 million. Zone directors have about $8 million remaining to allocate. To qualify for the federal program, city officials promised the community would match federal dollars 25 to 1. They have been able to do that by using things such as volunteer labor as a match. The bulk of the four-square-mile Empowerment Zone lies south of downtown, but the Zone does straddle Main Street to reach into downtown, which is undoubtedly the heart of the city. "We have the only real downtown in Orange County, and it's a very large downtown," boasted Larry Yenglin, a redevelopment project manager for the city. The city is working with downtown merchants on extensive streetscape and façade improvements, and officials are trying to decide how to rehabilitate and reuse an old, large building the city has acquired at Fourth and Broadway. But the downtown project getting the most attention now is construction of 86 live-work lofts. The for-sale lofts will be newly constructed on three separate sites in the Artists Village along Second Street. The city is working with The Olson Company on planning and designing the lofts, which will be marketed for singles and couples, Yenglin said. The lofts would pump even more life into the six-year-old, eight-block Artists Village, where monthly open houses draw throngs of art enthusiasts from around the region. A CSU Fullerton arts center opened there two years ago, and the University of California, Irvine, is considering opening its own arts center in the district. Private capital is also finding its way to the Artists Village and adjacent downtown streets. Last year, DGWB Advertising moved its office and 100 employees from Irvine to the 66-year-old former City Hall building, which the firm purchased and renovated. Leaders of the national advertising company said the art deco building and lively neighborhood drew them to the area. Nearby, a private developer has purchased and restored a 1930 Masonic Hall, which sat empty for nearly two decades. The hall is being converted into a performing arts center with multiple stages, restaurants and banquet facilities, according to Yenglin. In the early planning stages is a 38-story office tower on Broadway that is not getting as warm a reception. Some city officials believe the tower would be the crowning achievement of redevelopment; however, historic preservationists complain that the project would wipe out a number of historic buildings along Broadway. Just north of the downtown bustle is the Civic Center, where about 20,000 people work for various government agencies. The County of Orange has extensive offices, and the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse opened there in 1999. Two state appellate court buildings are scheduled to be built next year. Still, keeping all of those workers in midtown and downtown Santa Ana after 5 p.m. continues to be a challenge. Next to the Civic Center is the new International Business Center, the first tenant of which is the Mexico Trade Center. Business experts credit Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido for bringing Mexico's first trade center in the United States to Santa Ana. "When we were looking for different sites, he [Pulido] immediately started calling," Juan Hernandez, an advisor to Mexican President Vicente Fox, told the Orange County Register. "He doesn't know how to accept maybe." Besides the Mexican trade outpost, city officials hope the International Business Center — a city-owned office building — will provide a home for CSU Fullerton and UCLA business development classes, a Small Business Administration District Office, a federal Export Assistance Center, a California-Mexico Trade Assistance Center and county business development offices. Santa Ana also has one of the state's oldest enterprise zones, which offers tax credits to businesses that purchase equipment and add employees. The fact that Santa Ana appears to be pulling itself up by its bootstraps is largely unknown to the outside world. So the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce has hired DGWB Advertising to conduct a "brand audit." DGWB is interviewing about 40 "opinion leaders" inside and outside Santa Ana, as well as average citizens. The effort is similar to what Madison Avenue undertakes for consumer products, such as cars or beer. Only in this case, the "brand" is a city. "We want to understand what the perceptions are of Santa Ana and what the prospects are for Santa Ana," said Gil Aranowitz, DGWB director of planning. "You're talking about how to build the appeal of Santa Ana. … You can say ‘Santa Ana' as a brand the same way you can say ‘Coca Cola' as a brand." Too many people have a poor, outdated perception of Santa Ana, conceded Chamber President and CEO Mike Metzler. Many people fled the city for Orange and Riverside county suburbs years ago, especially when crime was increasing, and those people have never been back since. "There are a number of perceptions that are out there that are not positive," Metzler said. "It's time to get out the real story about the city." Chamber leaders hope to settle on a "brand" this fall and then begin a full year marketing blitz aimed at businesses, potential residents and tourists. "I think you'll see other communities trying to do this in the future. I'm surprised no one else has done this yet," Metzler said. Contacts: Shawna Lahey, Santa Ana Empowerment Zone, (714) 647-5372 Larry Yenglin, Santa Ana Community Development Agency, (714) 647-5360. Gil Aranowitz, DGWB Advertising, (714) 881-2300. Michael Metzler, Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, (714) 541-5353. Alan Saltzstein, CSU Fullerton Division of Political Science and Criminal Justice, (714) 278-3771.