September 24, 2004 > Interview with Steve Cho, Fremont City Councilmember
Interview with Steve Cho, Fremont City Councilmember
TCV: How you feel about the state of the city at this point.
Cho: I think, as far as the staff of the city, we are at this point in a stable financial situation. That is not to say that that is not going to change because of the forecasted shortfalls in terms of the revenue. There is going to be an identified budget gap of seven to nine million dollars. For the first year, at least, we do have a budget reserve that I'm not opposed to spending because that's why we set up the reserve in the first place. That's not going to take care of years two and on.
We need to think of ways that we can bring in revenue in order to provide services. I think we're on the right track, finally, in bringing in the economic development. That, I think, should have started years and years ago. As I tell people, Fremont, is the hole in the donut. We're the hole, and everything else is built around us. Decisions that were made in years past lead to this current situation where we became the hole.
Of course, we benefited from the high tech industry, in the mid- to late-nineties, but I'm not sure that we went out and proactively sought those; we were just in the right place at the right time. People found Fremont to be a very pleasant place to live and a place to start a business. By word of mouth, Fremont became the benefactor of a lot of the high tech that came to us, but that's gone now. What we have to do is come up with ways to find the revenue to provide the services and economic development to bring in the stores, the restaurants and shops that people have long been asking for. I think that's going to be the salvation of Fremont.
This economic downturn is forcing the city to examine how we got here. I think people have looked at that, analyzed it and realized that we don't have some of the things that people are asking for. Because of that, we're not able to generate the revenues that we should be getting. We are losing 1.1 billion dollars on an annual basis. That translates into millions of dollars in sales tax revenue. Not that we can capture the entire amount, but we need to that leakage from leaving Fremont.
TCV: How do you do that when things have been built up all around you? Now, we've got the area along Auto Mall that is starting to develop a big box corridor, but you also have historic districts which have been languishing for a while. How do you jump-start that?
Cho: Each area is unique; it has its own charm and its own character. You know that Centerville is in the redevelopment process of putting in what some people call a miniature Santana Row. I think that will provide the stimulus at least for the Centerville area of maybe stirring interest and triggering response from other owners around the area as well. I hope the attention being put on Centerville at this point will be enough the make it what I would call a crown jewel for Fremont.
Up until now, with the Auto Mall coming on, we haven't had a major development for years and years. We talked about the redevelopments of Irvington, of Niles, and of Centerville, but have not done much. We have shown little if any progress which, in my eyes, is not a good way to approach this. Even though you don't want to single out one area, the economic downturn taking away redevelopment money, forced our hand to concentrate on just the one project. I think that allowed staff to focus its attention and make the next project something that we'll all be happy with.
Niles has the biggest potential as far as being an attraction - bringing in tourists and outsiders. All we've got to do is tell them how to find Niles, because that's still a problem. You drive down Mission, and if you don't look at the signs or know where you're going, you'll pass it. The Niles Canyon Railway - I'm not sure if the City participated that much in trying to get that going because of other concerns with Union Pacific - will certainly help to bring people into Niles. Niles is a nice, very quaint, old historic town. I think it's a perfect setting, but in order to survive as a business, it needs people. Without a daytime workforce that it doesn't have, and without tourists coming in, which they hope to get, it's very difficult to go out and ask a business to open up there and make ends meet. I'm hoping that the signs that have been designed for the Niles area after the Mission Boulevard gets completed will be something attractive and draw attention to the Niles district.
TCV: What do you think the city might be able to do to stimulate our business climate? Is this a council function, or a staff function, or both?
Cho: It's a part of both. For one thing, in Niles, they have been very successful in holding outdoor events which seem to draw in people from not just Fremont but from throughout the region. Because these events have been successful, the recurrence of these types of events will at least, for now, bring in the people so that they get to know Niles. To the extent that the city can help facilitate these events is where the city can help.
At this point, it's very expensive for services that the city has to provide in terms of keeping the public safety. In outdoor events, you've got to close streets and have control of the traffic. Making it easier for communities to hold these types of events will serve, in the long run, to spark the interest of people coming to Fremont and not just spending time on that particular day but coming back and seeing other things as well.
TCV: Fremont has restricted the number of events. If these events cover those costs, why does the city restrict them in number?
Cho: As you will recall, when the city had to cut the 22 million it was because of the staffing that had to be cut as well. Without the adequate number of personnel on board, it was difficult to allocate staff and public safety to handle such events. My question is do we really need staff at that level to cover some of these events?
Other than the Festival of the Arts, which covers almost four square blocks, do you need to have a huge presence because of potential problems? I think the past two years of Niles activities has proven that they can handle whatever situation occurs with minimal staffing. To staff it at a level to expect the worst was good in some ways but it was bad in others because it increases the cost, making it difficult to put on events.
TCV: But that would be up to whoever is organizing to say, "Can we come up with money to cover costs of the event?" So it was simply a cost issue, not a staffing issue?
Cho: That's right.
TCV: Another issue that has, for the time being, slipped below the radar is the Highway 84 controversy. How will this end?
Cho: Fremont only owns a portion of the land that covers that historic corridor. CalTrans owns a significant portion of the rest. It's been a contentious issue over the years. I agree that we have to look at this on a regional basis because traffic going east or west in Fremont is horrendous at this point. Unless there are corridors that we can provide, it's not going to get any better.
If we look at it from a regional standpoint, then it's probably the alternative that we should go with. I guess I'm looking at it from a little bit of a selfish point of view. What are the benefits for Fremont? Does it benefit our community? Listening to the community that I represent, even though I may have a differing opinion, they're looking at me to represent them as well. I have to take that into account. If I look at it personally, I would say that it is a logical solution because that corridor has always been there. Looking at it from the community point of view, I would have to say that it benefits the region, but not Fremont.
TCV: There have been several alternatives proposed by Union City. Will this come back to the table for some resolution?
Cho: No solution is a solution in itself. When you're trying to move traffic, it has to go somewhere. If this goes through from the Dumbarton Bridge out to Mission, that connector, which originally was to have been an expressway all the way over to 580, is not in place. Building the Hwy 84 extension does not solve anything.
TCV: Traffic engineers are saying that everything is going to get worse no matter what you do. It seems that the only way to deal with these regional problems is on a regional basis.
Cho: I'll agree that sometimes issues that involve multiple cities need to be looked at on a higher level and decisions need to be made that takes in the global picture. I would hate to, as a city council member, give up that right to at least represent our own people at the table. For example, the Dumbarton Rail Corridor has just come up, we're not at the table and it's coming right through Fremont.
TCV: I'm amazed. I've gone to several of those meetings. Union City has been represented on the board, but not Fremont. It's going to directly affect Niles with passenger and freight traffic. It will also directly impact Centerville and Newark. This is a reality. Is this symptomatic of inadequate direction from council or management of staff activities?
Cho: One of the things that I have said repeatedly is that Fremont has risen and matured to the point where it needs more than just a part time council to be represented at these regional meetings and to take a proactive stance on the interests of Fremont. If you look at reality, a person has to be able to make a living as well, and with the amount that's being paid and the amount of time that's being asked to get this representation, you're not going to find very many people that can afford to put in the time and be able to sustain their life based on economic reasons.
Some of this is why we have not been active; because of time factors. You can only attend so many meetings out of your schedule. I don't think the public knows that it's not just Tuesday nights that we meet. Fremont has come to a level now where I think it may not be necessarily fulltime, but if no one else, the mayor should be able to devote full time attention to that position and look after the interests of our community.
TCV: That brings the whole structure of our city into play. Do you think it's time to reexamine the advantages of a charter city? Maybe it is time to reexamine the structure of our local government in terms of a charter, a strong mayor system or a strong city manager system?
Cho: I think that alternatives probably need to be looked at, but my impression initially was that it would be a less extensive form of government to have a charter city. Costs could increase, and I'm not in favor of increasing costs at all. In terms of getting things done and looking after the interests for the community of Fremont, if it takes that to achieve what we want to do then I'm in favor of at least exploring the alternative of a charter city again.
TCV: Apparently, years ago, Fremont took the stance that transportation corridors was something that Fremont was going to do with a huge amount of its redevelopment dollars.
Cho: It was a solution to a problem that was both regional and local. In order to bring in economic development and businesses to Fremont, you need to get people from one area to another. If there's going to be a bottleneck, then it would be advantageous to put measures in place to allow traffic to move freer in order to sustain the growth. I think part of the reason of putting a large amount of redevelopment dollars into the road improvement is to provide access to a lot of areas that would otherwise be hard to get to.
We know that it can be difficult going from east to west because of the railroad; whenever that comes through, everything's at a standstill. If we want businesses to come, and they have to put up with road blockage every time a train comes through, it is difficult to operate a business. A lot of dollars went into the overpasses for I-880 because Fremont has been, I guess, a bottleneck of the north south corridor. That's no fault of Fremont, because at the time Hwy 17 was put in, I don't think anyone forecasted the tremendous growth that this region has had. When I moved to Fremont, you could drive from north to south on Hwy 680 blindfolded and not hit anything. Today, it's a bottleneck. You look at what you think is going to happen years out and you try your best with your resources at that moment in time to handle it.
TCV: A portion of the Catellus property has changed in character from what was originally anticipated. Do you think the rest of it may still be a business park in the future?
Cho: At this point, I would hope that the economy comes back to make it the business park that we anticipated. There are so many vacant buildings, not just in Fremont but throughout the Silicon Valley that it's going to be years and years out before it will come to pass. Do we want to wait that long? It's difficult to say that we're not going to do anything; the development will be for the next generation or fifty years out. People don't see that.
TCV: Many say that Fremont has not been small business-friendly. How can the city become correct this? What can be done from the council?
Cho: The comments that I've heard for several years are about the process - the building process, the permit process, inspection and the fact that you not only have to touch base with so many different entities within the city. I would think that if the process was streamlined so that it's a single stop shop, a person can feel that they're getting something accomplished based on one visit as opposed to coming back again and again and again. I don't think people are opposed to building to code, the kind of rules we have on the books; it's more or less being told up front so that they can get on and do whatever it is that is necessary to make it happen.
TCV: Is there anything else?
Cho: One of the things that the Natalie Munn of the Library Advisory Commission talked about at the last council meeting was the effect of library services on the community. I think we need to consider allocating something to this area because it heavily impacts the welfare of the community; we should include the provisions in our budget to make that happen.