COMMUNITY OPINION: San Juan’s economic struggle over the last 75 years could end

Valerie Egland writes about the difficulty of drawing tourists in to the historic city.

This community opinion was contributed by Reach San Benito Parks President and San Benito County Planning Commissioner Valerie Egland. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.

As a toddler walking in town with my mother, Rosa’s House was not the only building with a wooden walk, and there were regular baseball games at Abbe Park where the Donkey Baseball games were also held during the Rodeo. Admittedly, all those who grew up in San Juan or its outskirts have different perceptions of the town as it was then, just as they do now. We were a diverse community with distinct nationalities and character that made life pretty interesting.

Before I was born, small farmers like my family were having a hard time, so the local industries like the Ideal Cement Company, Granite Rock, the canneries, larger farms and Ferry Morse Seed Company all contributed to an economy that nicely supported San Juan. There was a Greyhound Bus Station where the Mission Café is, and a Bus Station at the Y Road on the 101. It had a little diner, a few bowling lanes and busses rolled in and out through the day and night. San Juan did well economically after WW II, spurring new home building.

San Juan is a crossroads. All the local main roads passed through it, even the 101 that followed the El Camino Real. When the 101 Highway was re-routed in the mid 1930s, with a “lateral” connection to San Juan, a beautiful adobe structure with campanile and walls were built by the WPA and designed by the first Caltrans Landscape Architect.  It honored the California Missions, and stood as a beacon on the 101 that beckoned many tourists to spend time in San Juan Bautista, and the town did well.

In 1958, Cadamartori’s Restaurant moved from Monterey to the Casa Maria on First Street. It began an era of creativity in San Juan. New names appeared on shops and restaurants, and visionaries restored or repurposed old buildings to establish a core of vitality in San Juan at a time when the main employer, Ideal Cement Plant, was wavering.

As the 60s turned a corner, Caltrans cut a swath through the town to lay down the asphalt for Highway 156, ripping through the iconic Lateral at Highway 101 for a flyover. Caltrans projected that the turn in to town at Monterey Street would become the gateway to the city with some welcoming arch or so, but that didn’t come to pass. With the loss of tourist diversion from the 101, the town lost its momentum. The drug store, hardware store and lumber yard closed, and people started driving out of town for the goods not available here.

By the 70s, the last vestige of Ideal Cement Company’s assets and families left the area, leaving San Juan and its businesses on a shoe string, if not closed. But, as the 80s and 90s arrived, Pride of San Juan revolutionized the pre-packaged salad industry with Baby Greens; Natural Selection moved in to grow and process organic vegetables and greens; Amycel Mushroom products, Willis Construction and more grew their businesses with a level of success not seen in our idyllic valley. Yet, as industries seem to be thriving around us, San Juan Bautista continues to struggle.

In 2011, I asked permission of the Native Daughters of the Golden West to try to memorialize the lateral at 156/101, with a historical plaque to bring more attention to San Juan. Thus armed, I researched the history and contacted Caltrans. They regretted that they could not give permission for anything to occur there that would attract attention. There is insufficient room there for ingress/egress, and they didn’t want traffic stopping there even though they do not close it off to emergency stops.

In the process of this investigation it became apparent that there is insufficient signage to alert travelers of the San Juan exits to make up for the loss of this asset to our tourist cultivation. Then, north of the lateral, there is no sign to say that Highway 129 is an exit for San Juan as well as Watsonville. Driving south, there is also no sign to say San Juan, exit on 129; only Watsonville, until you do get off the 101 and are at the stop sign. Equally, headed south, there is little notice on the 101 that the 156 exit is to San Juan.

I took pictures, wrote my observations, and took them to interim City Manager Roger Grimsley. He agreed that we had a case for requesting better signage from Caltrans. He took it to the City Council for a resolution from the city, and Anthony Botelho requested same from the Board of Supervisors. Thus buttressed, along with an official letter from the Native Daughters, Roger sent an official packet to Caltrans District 5 in San Luis Obispo.

Unfortunately, our efforts were acknowledged as reasonable and justified, but not feasible. We were advised that San Juan could finance and build or rent a billboard on private property to attract visitors. Queries into cost and feasibility by the San Juan Committee proved costlier than San Juan could afford then and now.

Meanwhile, to further the effort to ‘take back the lateral,’ I organized a committee for maintaining the appearance of the relic to enhance our tourist draw. Larry Cain (Service Club), Stam Peden (Adopt-a-highway), Halena Kleinsmith (San Juan Committee of SBCCCVB), Ed Guaracha (State Park) and Georgana Gularte (SJB Historical Society). The group did a good clean-up of the area with a schedule to work with Stam on his obligation to Caltrans as adoptee, although today the energy is no longer there.

The San Juan Visitor’s Bureau, et. al., researched the possibility of establishing signage/billboards on private lands along the 101, but just as today, neither the businesses, nor the city, can afford it. There was more recently an effort at a gateway monument of welcome to San Juan when Richard Ponce wrangled a monetary commitment from developers, but it wasn’t enough money, nor could the plans be permitted at that time. Unfortunately, Richard’s dedication to the city was lost with his passing, and so the project, for now.

In the discussions with Caltrans, Corby Kilmer, landscape architect, offered to place two 24×36 inch posters for San Juan at the 101 Rest Stops south of Salinas. Artists Darlene Boyd, Norm Scott and Marianne Steeger agreed to work with me on a composition that would reflect the character of the town, and give an inventive vision of how to get there off the 101 Highway. You will still see the ‘San Juan Road posters’ there, laminated this last time around, as a gift to the community tourist effort.

All of this history is to tell the story of how difficult it has been for San Juan to draw tourists in, even though we have extreme assets. Gateway signage to advertise San Benito County and San Juan, as well as sales of San Benito County products and organic produce along the 101 Hwy is what is needed. We need a Visitor’s Center that will inform and direct the traveler to our City of History, and parks within the county. Traveler accommodations are what drag the driver off the freeway. It is then that you can capture their imagination with tourist information and products.

A couple of years back the Pinnacles Gateway Partnership was formed; facilitated by the National Parks Service. The CEO of the California Visitors Bureau in Salinas also manages the Gateway Partners, calls meetings and works toward increasing the economic vitality of the areas around the Pinnacles National Park.  San Juan is part of that group, working to enhance our tourist draw generated by the Pinnacles National Park.

Critical to accommodating the visitors to our parks is hotel space, restaurants, product and alternate places to visit if parks are crowded. In other words, a back-up plan for directing tourists to a fun adventure is critical. Therefore, capturing tourists while traveling, re-directing them, and giving them a good time nearby, will bring them back multiple times, and ‘multiple times’ is the key to sustainable year-round visitors.

If you ‘google’ search ‘Gateway to the Pinnacles,’ Soledad and Monterey County come up along with all their accommodations. The Pinnacles are only an hour away from San Juan. San Benito County was hiding behind a rock when Soledad quickly captured the name and accommodations. Gilroy claims the hotel accommodations for the Highway 25 route to the Pinnacles. Clearly, both counties north and south are happy to see San Benito County left behind.

San Juan cannot hide behind a rock when it comes to embracing a ‘Gateway to San Juan Bautista’ opportunity from the 101 Highway at Betabel and Y Roads. San Juan is the ‘surprise package’ travelers will find opens to them at the Visitor Center, if not this time around, next time.

valerie egland