By Miriam Raftery
October 7, 2010 (El Cajon) – Mayor Mark Lewis grew up in El Cajon, served three terms on the Council and is now running for his fourth term as Mayor. “I was on the 75th anniversary committee, and now I look forward to the 100th,” he said, referring to the City’s upcoming centennial in 2012.
Challengers have raised criticisms of vacancies downtown, redevelopment issues, management of the performing arts center, and more. But the Mayor says the issues facing the City are complex, particularly amid the national recession. He defends his record with pride, points to many accomplishments, and notes that many of the “fixes” proposed by his opponents have already been tried. He produced a four-page typed list of recent accomplishments—and shared his hopes for the future of El Cajon.
“Downtown is the heart of El Cajon,” said Lewis, who shared an early memory of watching the Mother Goose parade as a child. “Johnny Downs bought me an ice cream cone,” said Lewis, recalling the popular actor and children’s TV show host.
Born in Arkansas on Cinco de Mayo while his parents were moving cross country, he came to the San Diego area two weeks later, where his father worked as a jet airplane mechanic. The family soon moved to El Cajon, where Lewis was in the first graduating class at W.D. Hall Elementary School in 1960, later graduating from Greenfield Middle School and Granite Hills High School.
He’s seen many changes in El Cajon through the years. Before I-8 was built, old Highway 80 took travelers through downtown El Cajon, where a J.C. Penney department store and other major retailers were located. Then I-8 was built, dividing the City. Construction of Parkway Plaza shopping center further pulled shoppers out of the downtown area.
“That’s why we’ve focused on downtown; it’s been a matter of survival,” he said in answer to critics who have said redevelopment dollars should be spread around to more areas. He notes with pride that downtown has gone through a major facelift on his watch, including new sidewalks, outdoor seating, streetlights, new “wayfinding” signs and some new building facades. Prescott Promenade also underwent a remodel to accommodate larger events downtown.
While many vacancies remain, some new businesses have arrived and “more are coming” to downtown, the Mayor said. A 24-Hour Fitness and a new Ross store are among the newcomers, along with Park Place Café. Darrell Priest’s new building, which stood empty for some time, now has 70 people in it, Lewis noted.
A microbrewery is slated to open downtown in the former Blockbuster Video site soon and return of the popular Kip’s Restaurant is also planned—two additions likely to draw people into downtown at nighttime, the Mayor noted. “We’re trying to get some restaurants that will be unique to define El Cajon,” he said, adding that he’d like to see a barbecue restaurant. In addition, discussions are underway for a new farmer’s market in El Cajon.
Economic development is a “huge priority”, said Lewis, noting that city staff and Council members will attend an upcoming International Shopping Center Conference in hopes of enticing businesses to El Cajon.
The Mayor also wants to see El Cajon become “like the Gaslamp.” Some buildings on Rea Street will be bulldozed down for future revitalization. “We are working with the CDC,” he said adding that the plan is to enhance the arts district.
City accomplishments during his tenure include:
• Consolidation of El Cajon’s Fire Department with fire departments from La Mesa and Lemon Grove, a move that saved $560,000 for the three cities, winning a “Grand Golden Watchdog” award from the San Diego taxpayers association
• Construction of the new Public Safety Center, a $40 million project funded by Proposition O and slated for completion in June 2011
• The crime rate is down, due to programs such as Neighborhood Watch, Crime-Free Multi-Housing and Safety Corridor, a program for business owners to help reduce crime, and a website, www.elcajonneighbors.org for community discussion on ways to resolve neighborhood crime issues.
• A senior housing project slated for completion in 2012 and a new homes project of affordable housing on Birchwood Lane now under construction
• “Greenovation” – the City is seeking proposals from developers to acquire, rehab and resell foreclosed and distressed properties
• A new teen center that will double as senior center in morning hours
• A grant application that if approved, would revitalize Wells Park
• Renovation underway of Renette Center recreation facility with Community Development block funds
• A tot lot that opened at Kennedy Park October 2 and new recreation and after-school projects developed with help from local school districts and Stoney’s Kids
• Downtown events such as Cajon Classic Cruise, Concerts on the Green, Alley Cat Art Festival, Wieghorst Museum Western Days, and holiday events such as the Parade of Lights
• A City video tour that will soon be available at the City’s website
The Mayor adamantly defends the half-cent sales tax increase passed by voters. “It was a good thing because we have not had to lay off police, fire or paramedics,” he said. He estimates that $7 million has been brought in by the measure, saving 20 jobs in public safety. He doesn’t accept opponents’ argument that significant business has been lost to neighboring areas, noting the downturn in the economy and that business has dropped off all over.
“They don’t realize how important the sales tax is,” he said of his opponents, then encouraged all of them to get involved in city programs or commissions if he wins reelection. “Bringing in more businesses like Home Depot is so important to us; that alone will bring in $500,000 in sales tax.”
Public safety is a priority, said Lewis. “I’ve always worked in public safety,” he said, noting that he has chaired the Public Safety Board for SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) and served as foreman of a federal grand jury for San Diego. So is assuring that police and firefighters earn a reasonable living. “I’m the only one that voted against the pay cut for police,” he said, adding that he also planned to oppose a cut in pay proposed for firefighters. “They are people. They have families and they have dreams,” he said. “When they go to work each day, they don’t know if they’ll be returning.”
Lewis has served on the Indian Gaming Commission and noted that the City has obtained free equipment from local Indian tribes, which are required to offset negative impacts of Indian gaming with improvements to the community. Recent items obtained by El Cajon include hand-held instruments to identify tattoos on crime suspects and to send out a beam that will identify if a car is stolen. “That’s at no cost to taxpayers,” said Lewis. “Also they repave streets for us,” he said, citing Washington Avenue as an example. Police cars and streetlights are among the other items obtained through donations from Native American tribes.
Lewis said he works 24 hours a week as part-time Mayor, drawing a salary of just $24,000. He is also employed as the County’s Waste Management Coordinator, overseeing trash trucks.
“We are the only city in San Diego County that is zero waste,” said the Mayor, who proudly drives a car with “CPT TRASH” license plates. Nicknamed “Captain Trash,” he takes pride in implementing a recycling program for El Cajon that recycles 2,000 tons a day. “We also have the second largest trash fleet in the County that runs on natural gas, 125 trucks, and the gas comes from landfills,” he said, adding that the fleet has reduced smog in the three decades since its inception. “You can see for yourself.”
One of the most contentious issues under Lewis’ tenure has been the City’s handling of the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC). The City pulled back a professional management contract and returned management to Christian Youth Theater, only to cancel that contract and most recently, announce closure of the theater for major remodeling and a roof replacement. The City has also declined to subsidize the theater at levels that other communities have invested for similary-sized theaters.
The Mayor strongly defends the need for the remodel. “We are investing a couple of million to make it ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and safe,” he said. “We had two ceiling tiles fall down. Instead of steps we need a smooth ramp. The lift under the stage, a scissors lift, is now underwater! There’s a higher water level due to a creek across the way, and the equipment kept getting wet and rusty.” An aerial lift also needs upgrading, he said, noting the people behind the scenes have to pull with ropes when there’s an aerial performance such as Peter Pan’s flight.
“We’re going to do it right this time,” Lewis pledged, adding that the theater will be repositioned to open onto Main Street, a change he believes will help merchants downtown. “I might change the name,” he added.
Critics have suggested that local Native American tribes should be approached about helping to underwrite the theater. But the Mayor revealed, “We tried to offer the Indians partnerships.” Those efforts proved unsuccessful, he added, noting that the tribes already offer entertainment at their casinos--and want customers to go there.
Lewis takes pride in a tree-planting program that was one of his early actions to implement. “We’re Tree City USA,” he said. “We have to do things that are right for the City. I was challenged to come up with $500,000 to start this program.” He raised it, then promptly purchased a giant sequoia seedling nicknamed “Woody.” (Sadly Woody was inadvertently removed by construction workers during work on the new Public Safety Center. But many other trees planted under the program remain.)
The Mayor wants to see solar panels added along the freeway, as well as at Harry Griffith Park on the boundary with La Mesa. “We have a grant for solar heating and lights for individuals,” he added.
“One of the stars next to my name is that we have a no-kill animal shelter,” added the Mayor, who has been known to bring a homeless animal into Council hearings on occasion—and once brought in a pot-bellied pig that needed a new home.
He has a soft spot in his heart for animals, and once paid out of pocket for a “duck crossing” sign when the City refused to fund the expenditure after a duck was struck by a car near the city’s duck pond—a feature the Mayor has pledged to retain in the ECPAC remodel.
The City no longer runs the Mother Goose Parade. But when parade organizers ran into financial woes, Mayor Lewis called in Johnny Depp-lookalike "Sam the Pirate" Mejia to head up fundraising efforts, which proved successful at saving last year's parade.
El Cajon has the highest poverty rate in San Diego County, a new study by the Center for Policy Initiatives revealed last week. Asked about homelessness, the Mayor replied, “We’re happy with our response that we have.” He praised efforts by Set-Free Ministries and the Salvation Army, adding that crisis housing is available. “Anybody who wants to eat can certainly find food,” he noted, then added that El Cajon’s warm climate tends to attract more homeless people from San Diego’s coastal areas during the winter months.
Asked about other challenges facing the City, Lewis noted, “We have a challenge with regard to what the federal government is doing with regard to Iraqi immigrants.” El Cajon has an Iraqi population now estimated at 40,000 or more. “How do we assimilate them into our culture?” the Mayor said, noting that issues include concerns over the “rights and responsibilities of females” since Iraq has a male-dominated culture. He noted that Iraqis need English skills “to get good jobs” and said the City is working with representatives from St. Peter’s and St. Michael’s churches to assist the Chaldeans.
“They are whizzes at math,” said the Mayor, who also praised the Chaldean’s business skills. “They are very family-oriented.” He added that in addition to refugees relocated here by the U.S. government, many Iraqi Chaldean Christians are coming here from Detroit (the largest center for Chaldeans in the U.S.). “They don’t know what a snow shovel is,” he said, noting that the warm weather attracts them to El Cajon. Returning to Iraq is not an option, he added, since their lives would be in danger.
El Cajon has come a long way since its founding a hundred years ago, when “they ran pigs down Main Street” and “they used to advertise flume rides all the way from Cuyamaca to El Cajon,” the Mayor mused. He hopes to lead the City through its centennial in 2012 and notes that Councilmember Jillian Hanson-Cox will be in charge of a 100th anniversary party for the City of El Cajon. “We are actively looking for people who will be 100 years old,” said Lewis, who has served El Cajon for the past 20 years on its Council and as Mayor.
Despite some bumps in the road, he believes he is the strongest candidate to lead the City in the future. “The choice is clear,” he said. “You have a person with experience, or someone off the street where you don’t know their experience.”
Lewis faces four challengers: retired police officer Todd Moore, Iraq war veteran John “Mike” Garcia, ministry student Johnney Minarick, and Darrin Mroz. Click below to view ECM’s profiles of Moore, Garcia and Minarick as part of our Spotlight El Cajon series. Mroz has not responded to requests for an interview.