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Where is Guadalupe going?
The Central Coast city is growing--find out where, when, how, and why

Date: 02/27/2008

Time for change:
Mayor Guadalupe Alvarez (pictured under the clock) wants to get out the word that his community is growing and changing. Guadalupe is seeking to modernize and attract new business and tourism to town, while keeping its old-time charm intact.
Guadalupe Mayor Lupe Alvarez pulled his tan truck over to the side of West Main Street--way, way out past where Highway 166 intersects with Highway 1--and stopped. He fished a February 2008 Ladies Home Journal magazine from the back and flipped the cover open. "Look," he said, showing me a beautiful, mostly green, two-page ad for Frito Lay products, featuring a lush field with foothills and a barn in the distance.

"Now," he said, proudly pointing to the right, "look. It's the same [scene]. They airbrushed out the farmhouse and replaced it with the barn from around the back."

"They" were the Frito Lay commercial producers who called the mayor last fall to ask about possible locations for a shoot.

Mayor "call me 'Lupe'" Alvarez was taking me a on a whirlwind tour of Guadalupe, population 6,500. The questions I put to him were: What is happening in town? Where is Guadalupe headed?

Guadalupe watchers sense that the bucolic community could be headed for much bigger and better things. Change is, of course, a-comin', but not drastically and not fast.

Lupe and the City Council have been preoccupied with issues involving water. The Santa Maria River Levee is a cause for great concern that has propelled Santa Maria city officials like Mayor Larry Lavagnino and Director of Utilities Rick Sweet into traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal funding. Mayor Alvarez went on one of those trips, too.

He knows that problems with a failed Santa Maria River Levee could have a disastrous effect on his community. He drove me over the river to show me where, several months ago, the county had removed willows that were packed into the riverbed, with trunks and branches crossing each other.

Lupe could envision the tightly packed willows behaving like a dam and holding up the natural flow of water to the ocean.

"I knew those trees had to be cleared out," he said. "During this recent round of rains, 11,000 cubic feet of water per second poured through here.

"Just imagine: If the force of that water damaged this bridge or that railroad bridge," he continued, gesturing to the east, "traffic would stop dead. Imagine the loss to commerce. Just imagine the loss of property. Some people might never have bounced back from it."

The Guadalupe City Council backed Lupe up, and he approached the appropriate government officials. Flood control authorities agreed with him about the seriousness of the problem and initiated a clearing-out process that did indeed allow this season's heavy rain and run-off to flow freely, without overflowing the banks and damaging property.

Forward thinking clearly averted catastrophe. Given the record amount of rain this area has experienced recently, Lupe's prescience was just in time.

Also in water news, the city is on the move with water storage. We drove by a recently completed 1.6 million-gallon water storage tank, immediately adjacent to the drilling site for a new water well, and near the site for a proposed public works building.

The elevated water tower that now looms over the city is a well-known, much-photographed landmark that may not be a well-known, much-photographed landmark much longer. Earthquakes have rendered it unstable and it must be replaced. Bids are out for a new 100,000-gallon elevated water storage facility that will meet safety requirements.

Lupe is excited about the new look waiting in the wings for the main drag, Guadalupe Street, which is also Highway 1.

The city purchased new, double-fluted streetlights that will soon enhance the thoroughfare after dark. The fixtures are similar to those in other old towns, where modern conveniences team with design to preserve the charm and flavor. When the lights can be installed depends on when the proper permits are issued.



Commercially appealing

Commercials and movies filmed on location in Guadalupe are part of life in the small agricultural community. Visits from Hollywood inject some excitement into daily life and inject permit fees into the city's coffers.

"We had one Hyundai commercial shot here recently, and you know that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was filmed here," Lupe said.

The cash that the production companies spend is a boon to the town.

The more people who visit Guadalupe, whether to shoot commercials or to engage in tourist activities, the better it is for the city. Lupe handed me a black-and-yellow bumper sticker (that he designed and paid for) that says, "Guadalupe--Gateway to the Dunes." We continued west on the road.

"We want to get the word out about Guadalupe," Lupe said.

The mayor is passionate about his community and wants the best for it. He drove me to the beach, just following West Main until we couldn't drive any more. When we entered the county park, he gestured to the left: "That's where Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Ten Commandments. You can see some of the Plaster of Paris on top."

How much you can see of the 1923 set depends on how much the winds have shifted the sands atop the buried treasure described in many a film buff's book.

While we were in the parking lot, the mayor waved his hand at the ocean and said, "This is our backyard. How lucky can we be? This is a great community."

That was the theme of the morning: Guadalupe is a great community. This young man in his second year of his second term as mayor wants to do as much as possible for his town.

As city stationery supplies dwindle and need to be reordered, they're beefed up with an addition to the city's logo: "Gateway to the Dunes."



The past meets the future

With the help of a state grant, Guadalupe has undertaken an aggressive program of making routes to schools safer for students. Lupe pointed out places where sidewalks will be widened, where flashing lights will be embedded to slow down drivers, and where overhead lights will be improved or installed.

"It is important that parents have peace of mind about their kids," Lupe said. "They have to feel secure that their children are safe on their way to and from school."

While safety comes first, such changes underscore the evolving look of the community. Guadalupe-lovers (residents and non-residents alike) quiver with trepidation that the flavor and character of this town could change with gentrification and growth. Guadalupe boasts a lot of old buildings spilling over with architectural interest. The town is small, but its visual appeal is broad-based and abundant.

Guadalupe Street is a nonstop line of old one- and two-story buildings with fascinating facades. John Perry's Napa Auto Parts Store, for example, has a granite block in front that proclaims the presence of a "Druids 1945 Temple," long since gone.

Down the street there is an old, over-the-door sign establishing the site of the "Hop Sing Benevolent Association," also long since gone.

Across the street and down a bit, we see a three-story building with a huge mural featuring shadowy Chumash figures in the background, along with a monstrously sized eagle. Across the parking lot, there's a large, contemporary mural, very California, with a guy who looks like a biker and his gal pal.

Back at John Perry's Napa store, there's a large vintage-style ad for Gold Medal Flour painted on the brick. Lupe told me that the mural was painted and paid for by Paramount when it used Guadalupe as a film locale some years ago. The owner of the Santa Florita Hotel hired the artist to do the Chumash-themed art on her property.

Not everything in Guadalupe is mired in the past. The large earthquakes of several years ago changed the face of Guadalupe Street in a small but significant way. Several buildings were damaged and had to be retrofitted.

One of these is located at 879-A Guadalupe St. With help from the Redevelopment Agency, the building's owner remodeled and shored up the structure, giving it a contemporary look compatible with existing facades and with the coastal, beachy feeling of the town.

At that location, the JMZ Coffee Company, is owned by Judith Zepeda who shares a storefront with HR Block, one of the "new guys" in town.

Meeting Judith provided a look into Guadalupe's future. The young woman was the proverbial bundle of surprises. She was born and raised in Guadalupe. A graduate of UCSB with a degree in history, Judith has a resume that includes undergraduate study in Italy and three months of intense flamenco study in Spain, as well as human resources experience for large companies like Barclay's Bank in San Francisco.

When the dot-com meltdown hit the Bay Area and jobs disappeared, Judith sensed it was time to go home and fulfill a dream: to own her own business.

Now 32, she's a graduate of the Women's Economic Ventures (WEV) program, which taught her how to write a business plan and helped her get started.

"I can't say enough good things about that program," she said. "I had a business plan when I enrolled in WEV, but the program showed me how my original plan was not viable and put me on track."

Judith opened JMZ in September of last year. Now, she one of the best espresso products on the market, serves Illy espresso, one of the best of its kind, and is proud to do so. To help cultivate business, she helps word of mouth along by serving free coffee at community gatherings like the Dunes Center Christmas tree party and an occasional Catholic church event. At Christmas, she took free coffee over to the nearby firehouse. Her vocabulary is rife with hip marketing phrases.

Judith shares the handsome exposed brick wall with a business in the back: Guadalupe Curves, a women's franchise fitness facility owned and managed by Anita Navarro, who opened it for business about four months before JMZ set up shop.

"When I wanted to open a Curves," Anita said, "I was told I couldn't do it."

Guadalupe's demographics, of course, were deemed to be all wrong for this kind of business. However, Anita proved to be right--the women of Guadalupe were ready.

"I have 160 clients," Anita announced proudly, and Judith Zepeda was one of her first.


Where to next?

Guadalupe can't grow to the west, because the Coastal Commission regulates land that's three miles from the shoreline. It can't expand to the north, because the downtown section already practically abuts the San Luis Obispo County line.

Guadalupe can, however, grow to the south, and that's exactly what's about to happen. Plans are in the works for a development at DJ Farms, a 212-acre property at the crossroads of Guadalupe and West Main streets, catty-corner from Guadalupe's famous cemetery, with its fascinating tombstones and 10-foot-or-taller granite and marble monuments.

The development will contain anywhere from 800 to 980 homes, a park, a new city hall, a new police station, and a new fire station. Lupe is excited about the latter two.

"The facilities we use now need updating, but we don't have the money to fix them up."

There will also quite likely be a hotel, whose bed tax will greatly benefit the city. Right now there are no hotels in Guadalupe. Overnight tourists stay in Santa Maria or up the coast.

The Guadalupe City Council is in the final stage of reviewing the specifics of the project. The density of the project--how many homes there will be and on what-size lots--is one of the major issues now under consideration. At the most recent City Council meeting, the city pressed for less density: fewer homes on larger lots. The developer is revising the approach, and will re-present plans to the city so they can hammer out an agreement.

Such an agreement on all the specifics could take anywhere from one to six months.

"If the developer comes back with new size lots [and less density]," Lupe said, "I think the City Council will move fast to approve this project."

The mayor reminded me that developments don't spring up overnight, and that this is at least a 10-year project.

"Much depends on the economy and the demand for homes in this area," he expanded.

One thing is for sure, however, according to the mayor: "We are moving forward. We are not going sideways. We are not going backward. Guadalupe is moving forward."

But no matter how far forward they move, the little coastal town of Guadalupe isn't likely to lose its old California flavor and appeal. The charm is here to stay.

Helen Ann Thomas also has charm that's here to stay. Send comments to the executive editor at

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