San Juan’s Future May Lie in Its Past

At least three times a month, my family and I make the drive to
San Juan Bautista to eat Chinese food at Orient Express, which has
the best egg rolls and soup this side of Beijing.
At least three times a month, my family and I make the drive to San Juan Bautista to eat Chinese food at Orient Express, which has the best egg rolls and soup this side of Beijing.

Turning off Highway 156 and driving past San Juan School, one is quickly transported back in time. The bumpy roads can make you feel like you’re on a stagecoach.

Stoplights? Aside from the lights at the 156 intersection, they don’t need no stinkin’ stoplights in the Mission City.

The building facades are weathered, adding to the rustic look.

Street chickens still roam free, dodging cars and efforts to regulate their wild status. They may be symbolic of the tiny town’s battle to preserve its past while figuring out ways to fill its coffers.

The city manager recently called San Juan’s financial situation “pretty grim” and a city councilman said the town “is in a desperate situation.” That sounds familiar to those of us who live in cash-strapped Hollister.

San Juan’s City Hall and library hours have been cut, raises have been deferred for city employees, and officials are hoping that volunteers will pitch in to empty trash cans and clean up parks.

The reason? A decline in tourism has meant reduced tax revenue. Reduced tax revenue, in turn, has stirred talk that the city could be broke by next year – forcing the county to jump in and run things.

The eternal battle in San Juan is billed as preservationists versus developers. On one side are the people who believe the city’s old-town charm is enough of a draw for tourists. Then there are those who say there’s nothing wrong with relaxing development rules to allow a fast-food restaurant or other chain stores.

Tourists like charm and sit-down restaurants, but they also like hamburger meal deals for the kids, right?

So what is The City of History supposed to do? Allow Burger King to move in as long as it’s built of adobe bricks? The upscale residential development on the outskirts of town apparently hasn’t helped the sales tax revenue in town very much, so residential growth within the city limits may not be the answer.

As a tourist, I like that San Juan is frozen in time. I like walking on wooden sidewalks while having an ice cream cone with my sons. I like knowing that the town isn’t totally different than it was when my ancestors arrived there in the 1840s.

As a pragmatist, I want San Juan to survive as a municipality whose people can control their own destiny.

Windmill Market owner Jim Gibson, regarding critics of development in San Juan, told The Free Lance: “If the city dies, they killed it.”

One of those “theys” is San Juan watchdog/gadfly Rebecca McGovern, whose house at the entrance to downtown befits her unofficial status as city gatekeeper.

McGovern said Thursday that keeping the developers out and focusing on San Juan’s history will help the town out of its economic downturn.

“Our future economic chances are in being what we are: a unique, historic city,” she said. “This is our chance not only to save San Juan, but the whole area between Union Road and Rocks Road. The whole atmosphere – the mountains, the canyons, the farmland – are all tied together. It’s a very unique experience.”

McGovern says San Juan has experienced and survived similar economic downturns in the past, during which “everyone panics,” there is turnover in city staff, and things get better again.

Time will tell if this is merely a cyclical event or the end of local control of the charming town. So for now all we can do is dodge street chickens, order egg rolls or Mexican food, get an ice cream cone, and buy some antiques. Every little bit helps.

Adam Breen teaches journalism and yearbook at San Benito High School. He is former editor of The Free Lance.

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