A City on a Defined Mission: Watsonville’s Steady Rise
With a vibrant blend of history, innovation, and resilience, Watsonville is on a bold course for the future
Watsonville, California, a vibrant city located in the Pajaro Valley, is a hub of agricultural innovation. With a rich history rooted in the growth of the apple industry, Watsonville has evolved into a diverse and thriving community known for its strawberries, apples, and multiple other crops. The city’s agricultural prominence has earned it the title of the “Strawberry Capital of the World.”
Watsonville’s rich culture is derived from its deep-rooted history, diverse cultures, and agricultural prominence. With its century-long existence, this city has seen the ebb and flow of various communities, each leaving an indelible mark on its landscape and ethos.
Today, Watsonville is home to about 53,000 residents. Its agricultural foundation is evident in its long-standing relationship with diverse communities such as the Filipinos, Mexicans, Islanders, and Croatians. These communities have historically been involved in the agricultural sector, supporting and nurturing it.
René Mendez, the City Manager, shares, “At one point, there used to be a lot of apples in Watsonville before the berries, before strawberries. There were a lot of orchards,” Mendez recalls. While orchards have become a rarer sight, the city’s agricultural prowess has shifted towards berries. “If you shop at Sam’s Clubs, Costco, Targets, and the like, you’re likely buying berries from Watsonville,” he adds.
Located in Santa Cruz County, Watsonville holds the distinction of being the southernmost city in the county. Another unique feature? “We are the only city that actually has an airport in Santa Cruz County,” Mendez points out. Its proximity to beaches adds to its allure.
With multiple communities in flux over the years, the city has maintained a rich diversity. “Today, it’s predominantly a Mexican, Latinx, Mexican-American community,” says Mendez. However, the city’s cultural vibrancy doesn’t end there. It continues to celebrate its Japanese, Filipino, and other diverse cultures, making it a melting pot of traditions, stories, and experiences.
Steering the Ship: A Day in the Life of the City Manager
The role of a city manager is multifaceted, requiring a balance of leadership, administration, and community engagement. As the individual at the helm of a city’s operations, the city manager plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the city runs smoothly and efficiently, addressing the diverse needs of its residents.
Mendez shares, “I’ve been here for a year and a half. I started in July of 2022.” Prior to his role in Watsonville, Mendez served as a city manager in a smaller city in South Monterey County since 2005. His familiarity with the region and its communities has been instrumental in his current role. “I’ve been in this region for 18, 19 years? I was very familiar with Watsonville as a community,” he notes.
Describing his typical day, Mendez says, “I’m pretty much the CEO of the city. I am responsible for all facets of the operations.” This includes ensuring that the policy directions set by the city council, which comprises seven council members, including one mayor, are carried through. “I’m responsible for the budget, the management, procurement, and hiring. I hire all the department heads,” he adds. With a team of department heads reporting directly to him, Mendez oversees a city with over 400 employees and a budget exceeding $200 million.
Additionally, a significant part of Mendez’s role involves community engagement. “A typical day is talking to many folks with questions, concerns, etc. So many of these types of meetings are working with the council, connecting with the community,” he elaborates. Whether it’s addressing concerns about a delayed permit or working with developers on their projects, Mendez is the go-to person. “I respond a lot to criticism or complaints. I’m pretty much just a spokesperson. They direct to me every call that the council gets,” he says.
Mendez highlights Watsonville’s remarkable resilience, recalling the devastating 1989 earthquake that severely impacted the city’s downtown. Despite such challenges, the community’s spirit remains unbroken. He draws attention to the recent floods, emphasizing how the city swiftly rebounded, especially in infrastructure. While many homes near the Pajaro River faced flooding, the community has been proactive in its recovery, with no lives lost. As they navigate the recovery phase, there’s a concerted effort to support local businesses, especially those already strained by the pandemic, as they faced back-to-back challenges from both the pandemic and a series of atmospheric river events.
Despite these challenges, Mendez remains optimistic about the community’s ability to bounce back. “Overall, generally speaking, the community is doing very well,” he asserts.
Watsonville’s essence is captured in its history, resilience, vibrant cultural celebrations, and forward-thinking vision. The city is a melting pot of traditions, festivities, and community spirit, reflecting its diverse population and rich heritage.
Mendez highlights, “Let’s start with the big one, our Strawberry Festival, which celebrates the berry industry here. It’s been going on for decades. Thousands of people attend.” Beyond this iconic festival, Watsonville hosts diverse events that showcase its multicultural fabric. “We just finished our Fiestas Patrias, which is Mexican Independence Day in September,” he adds. The city also embraces the arts, as evident in its mural projects, arts festivals, and the revitalization of community theaters. “Our arts community. We’re starting to lean into that as a community,” Mendez notes.
The city’s inclusivity shines through in its acknowledgment and celebration of various communities. “Just this weekend, we had a Filipino Heritage Month festival,” Mendez shares. He also touches upon the city’s significant gesture: “About a year and a half to two years ago, the city formally apologized to the Filipino community for past wrongs.” This act underscores Watsonville’s commitment to unity and understanding among its residents.
Watsonville’s events calendar is bustling. From wine walks celebrating the surrounding wineries to innovative drone shows at the airport’s 75th-anniversary celebration, the city ensures there’s something for everyone. “Almost every weekend at our central plaza, there’s some event going on,” Mendez points out.
Revitalizing Watsonville: Infrastructure on the Rise
Watsonville is not just a city with a rich history and vibrant culture; it’s also a city on the move, with ambitious infrastructure projects that promise to reshape its landscape and improve the quality of life for its residents.
Mendez begins with an update on the city’s green spaces, “By the end of this year, we’re going to be able to bid on a complete renovation. Our largest park is Ramsey Park. We’re calling it our Renaissance Project.” This $20 million endeavor is just the tip of the iceberg. The downtown plaza is also set for a makeover, and a new nature center emphasizing sustainability and environmental education is in the works.
On the transportation front, Mendez reports, “We just finished a major street reconstruction project and have another one underway.” He also mentions a significant $80 million project by the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency to lay pipes to transport water to the coast. But perhaps the most monumental undertaking is the Pajaro River project, a $400 million initiative to strengthen the levee system to prevent future flooding. “The first tranche of that project is hopefully starting by 2015. It’s about $160 million,” Mendez adds.
Healthcare is also a priority. Mendez proudly shares, “Last year, this community bought back its hospital to the tune of $65 million.” Plans are in place to upgrade the facility and establish a health district, ensuring residents have access to quality medical care.
Mendez emphasizes Watsonville’s commitment to its employees and effective governance, highlighting its collaboration with Santa Cruz County to upgrade the South County facilities. This initiative aims to reduce the daily commute for numerous county employees, easing the traffic on State Highway One. Mendez proudly mentions the city’s extensive services, from police and fire to utilities, with plans to reopen its landfill, minimizing waste transportation distances. With an investment nearing three-quarters of a billion dollars in various projects, including a pedestrian bridge over State Highway One, Watsonville is actively shaping a safer, interconnected, and thriving future.
Watsonville’s Vision for the Future
As cities evolve, they often grapple with their identity, balancing the weight of their history with the promise of their future. With its multifaceted culture, innovation, and resilience, Watsonville is no exception. The city stands at a pivotal juncture, poised to embrace the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Mendez emphasizes, “It’s a community ready to take its next step. We are the third largest city on the Central Coast. There’s an incredible work ethic and workforce here willing and ready to step up, learn, and adjust if needed.” This sentiment captures the spirit of Watsonville—a city proud of its roots and eager to forge ahead.
He continues, “Not only do you get the welcoming community environment and feel, the culture, arts, and vibrancy, but you get a community hungry to take its next steps.” This hunger for progress is evident in the city’s fiscal health, thriving businesses like S. Martinelli & Co., and its budding relationship with innovative companies like Joby Aviation.
But it’s not just about economic growth. Mendez points out the city’s willingness to introspect and adapt. “We can look ourselves in the mirror and see what we need to change, improve, and adjust,” he says. This self-awareness is crucial as Watsonville navigates discussions about future growth, expansion, and evolving identity.
Watsonville is a city that cherishes its past, celebrates its present, and eagerly anticipates its future. Whether through infrastructure projects, fostering innovation, or preserving its natural beauty, the city strives to remain a vibrant and welcoming place for all.
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AT A GLANCE
What: A vibrant city on California’s Central Coast, known for its rich history, diverse culture, and forward-thinking community initiatives.
Where: Santa Cruz County, California
Cabrillo College – www.cabrillo.edu
Cabrillo College is a leading California community college serving Santa Cruz County with locations in Aptos and Watsonville. Ranked #1 in transfers to UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo offers over100 academic and career education programs serving educational goals including career training, Associate degrees for transfer to universities, and lifelong learning.