Councilmembers take hopeful tone in Temecula State of the City

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Counterclockwise from the top left, Temecula Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards and councilmembers Mike Naggar, Zak Schwank and Matt Rahn speak at Temecula’s 2020 State of the City address.

Optimism was the overwhelming tone of Temecula’s televised State of the City address Oct. 1.

The address represented at least two firsts for the city. It’s the first time Temecula has conducted its State of the City in an all-virtual, televised format — made necessary by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And it is also the first time Temecula’s State of the City address has been given by the entire City Council, rather than just the sitting mayor.

That is, of course, because the city does not have a sitting mayor. Former mayor James Stewart resigned in June over an email to a constituent that many criticized as racist, although Stewart defended himself by saying the offensive portion of the email arose from a transcription error.

“All of us here today unanimously decided in June not to appoint a mayor for the remainder of 2020,” Councilman Matt Rahn said at the start of the address. “In this challenging year, Temecula citizens and businesses deserve our equal and active participation in leadership that fosters an inclusive community seamlessly into the future.”

Stewart, who is still running for the Temecula City Council District 2 seat despite his resignation from the council, was not directly mentioned at the State of the City, nor was the reason for his resignation.

Councilman Mike Naggar did, however, touch on the topic of racism, which became prominent in the city this year not just because of Stewart’s email, but also because of the larger backdrop of large protests nationwide and in Temecula over the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.

“Amidst one pandemic came another in 2020: Racism,” Naggar said. “We reject racism in any form in Temecula. It is a topic we will not stray away from or be silent about.”

Councilmembers spent most of the address taking turns highlighting Temecula’s economic strength and upcoming projects in the city.

Rahn noted that Temecula’s average household income increased by 10% to more than $120,000 in 2019, Old Town’s sales have seen an increase of 78% in the six years ending in 2019, median home prices were up 8% between July 2019 and July 2020, and unemployment in the city has improved by 40% since the height of the coronavirus-related shutdowns in April.

But he also pointed out an interesting fact — Temecula’s population declined for the first time in the city’s history between 2019 and 2020, dropping by more than 1,800 people to about 117,000.

Rahn characterized it as an “appropriate correction.”

“Interestingly, several years ago, city staff forecast our 2020 population based on existing land use and other factors to be precisely what it is today,” he said.

Interspersed between the councilmembers’ speeches were several videos describing manufacturing in Temecula, new construction projects on the horizon and projects that have recently been completed, and other topics.

Perhaps helping to reverse the slight population loss in Temecula over the last year will be upcoming new construction projects such as Rancho Soleo in south Temecula, Sommers Bend near Butterfield Stage Road and Altair west of Old Town, which are in varying stages of planning and development; according to the city, more than 7,000 individuals are on a waiting list to purchase homes in Sommers Bend.

The city recently finished widening projects on Butterfield Stage Road, Pechanga Parkway and at Winchester and Nicolas roads, as well as added a roundabout at La Paz and Ynez Roads.

Moving forward, the city is in the planning stages of projects to add a new bridge over the Murrieta Creek extending Overland Drive, extending Diaz Road to the Murrieta border, and creating a new Cherry Street bridge over the creek. A project to add auxiliary lanes along Interstate 15 between each freeway junction in Temecula is also in the design phase, and construction is set to begin next year on phase two of the French Valley Parkway interchange project, which will add flyover lanes from the northbound freeway onramp from Winchester Road that will allow drivers to merge onto I-15 or I-215 north of the junction of those two freeways. The final piece of funding required to make that project possible was covered with a federal grant announced last year.

“We traveled to Washington, D.C., several times lobbying for this grant, and ultimately, congressman Ken Calvert was instrumental in helping us secure the final 50 million dollars which closed the gap on this 137 million dollar project,” Rahn said. “When it is completed, it will be a tremendous relief to travelers headed northbound on I-15 every evening from San Diego.”

The city has also completed several aesthetic projects, including new LED lighting, reupholstering and new carpeting at the Ronald H. Roberts Temecula Public Library; new carpeting in the Temecula Valley Museum and repainting of some city-owned buildings in Old Town, including Pennypickle’s Workshop.

“This is only a sample of the city’s to do list,” Temecula Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards said. “Each of these projects is an economic investment in our community. It is so important to maintain the beauty of our city, especially in times of economic hardship, because the aesthetics of our parks and amenities help define and assure us Temecula is the best it can be in uncertain times.”

Councilmembers spent time on the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on local businesses.

Naggar reminded residents that mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing are all ways in which local residents can help “get Riverside County’s health metrics aligned w the state’s requirements to fully reopen.”

“Temecula, Murrieta and Menifee are reportedly the healthiest in the county, with larger populations yet smaller infection rates,” Naggar said.

Councilman Zak Schwank said the city is devoting resources to local businesses hurt by the pandemic.

“The city gave away half a million dollars in grants to businesses,” Schwank said. “We’re about to give another 100,000 to nonproifts. More is on the way.”

Edwards attributed Temecula’s relative success in keeping coronavirus infections down — it has recorded 17 deaths and less than 1% of the city’s population has tested positive for the virus, compared to rates of more than 2% in cities such as Hemet and Indio — to the city’s healthcare system.

Temecula Valley Hospital, Edwars noted, received an A grade this year from the Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit healthcare watchdog.

“The low COVID infection rates in our city are no doubt due to excellent healthcare standards at Temecula Valley Hospital and we’re grateful to our healthcare professionals on the frontlines and their administration for keeping us safe,” Edwards said.

Concluding the address, Rahn said despite the challenges already faced this year, the city will confidently face the challenges yet to come.

“We choose to reflect on 2020 as historical. Good has emerged and more is yet to come,” Rahn said. “The final quarter of 2020 begins today. The power is on our hands to write the last chapter of 2020 in Temecula’s history book. And we see a very bright future.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.