As Imperial County’s third-largest city, Brawley at times has been seen at risk of lapsing behind its larger neighbors to the south and yet has assets allowing it to emerge from the recession years with a brighter outlook.
The city has a growing hospital recently affiliated with a major health network, a major beef processing plant that reopened after a few dormant years and Cattle Call, a week-long festival celebrating the area’s agricultural roots that continues to draw huge crowds. Those and other advantages must be leveraged to achieve further prosperity, said Katie B. Luna, executive director of the Brawley Chamber of Commerce.
“How are we going to brand the North County so it is attractive for people to come and spend their discretionary dollars?” Luna said in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of tourism that we are not capitalizing on that we need to. We’re not showing off what we have and not keeping them here.”
As of Jan. 1, 2017, Brawley had a population of about 27,000, compared to about 46,000 for El Centro and 41,000 for Calexico.
The potential lies in the city already being a gateway to Imperial County for off-roaders, snowbirds and ecotourists, and for being the largest city close to the deceptively sizeable population of the vast rural areas in the county’s northern areas.
More growth potential comes from those already visiting the city, Luna stressed.
“We need a secondary market to Cattle Call. That business sustains that area for months. To our credit, we are at a point where we recognize that,” Luna explained. “It’s so important for us to do events because it draws people to the city. People come for the event but before they leave they have to stop and buy gas or stop at Wal-Mart.”
Also attracting commerce are the Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District that in recent years affiliated with the Scripps Health Network and continues to expand medical services, the One World Beef plant, and other major activities staged by the chamber, including downtown market-style events such as the April 21 Great Taco Showdown.
To build on those assets Luna revealed the chamber changed its approach to events, including reducing the number but enhancing the quality of those remaining.
“What we’ve seen as a result in taking the events to a more professional level is better marketing and promotion resulting in a higher attendance and more satisfaction from attendees, and more value for the sponsors so they really know what they’re getting,” she said.
Another major component to improving commerce is developing and promoting an image for the city’s embattled downtown area. Like smaller cities across the nation, Brawley’s downtown is no longer the major center of commerce, losing customers to the Wal-Mart commercial area on the south end of town, and to the Imperial Valley Mall and commercial areas in El Centro.
It has a number of vacant buildings and a few ugly scars from structures that burned. But many businesses remain and that stretch of Main Street—What else would it be called in a small town? —it has several financial institutions, medical facilities and the county courthouse/administration facility. All attract clientele, but Luna said the chamber and other locals have something a bit more vibrant in mind.
“We can envision a ‘boutique-ish’ downtown that will attract visitors to something they can’t get in their day-to-day lives. We have a lot of art in Brawley and the North County that is taking form and a lot of art businesses we want to support. For our downtown that is so important,” she said, explaining the North County Coalition for the Arts is a major ally.
An initial foundation is the Firestone building on the downtown Plaza park area that houses a photographer, art studio and graphic-arts business. An old theater that could host a variety of events is under renovation.
“That is an anchor point to attract people and businesses that are art-centered. Attracting those businesses that complement what we already have is important,” Luna said of the fledgling arts district.
Luna said the chamber is not just hoping for an ignition spark. In a bold move, the chamber recently asked the city to give it control of a percentage of the hotel tax collected in the city.
“We proposed to the city we can fill two areas of need by using the tax: tourism and business development. The funds would be for marketing tourism and attracting business,” Luna said. “The chamber would provide services at a cheaper rate of costs than if the city does it. It takes collaboration to execute.”
The city council did not immediately make a decision on the request, but Luna said the chamber is hopeful the outcome will be favorable.
She said she also hopes the effort is a catalyst for the city to become more business friendly. Currently, Luna said she hears from entrepreneurs getting a business license is too difficult.
“There’s a certain responsibility for the chamber and the city to make it simple. Restaurants know food, but not three pages of conditions,” she added. “We need to take action. Without a vision for growth you’re burdening progress and when you burden progress, you stop growth.”