A boy in the under eight children’s category races to finish an ear of corn Saturday afternoon at the 2012 La Habra Corn Festival during the corn eating contest. The 2012 La Habra Corn Festival celebrates corn with a corn eating contest, displays, and a parade.
Source: OC Register
La Habra has something no other city in Orange County has. A corn festival.
That’s right, corn – as in the plant that grows so high it meets an elephant’s eye.
Now, you may wonder why a celebration of corn. And I am here to report and reveal. But for context, you probably are asking yourself some basic questions about La Habra – like where the heck is La Habra?
Not to be confused with La Palma, another Orange County city, La Habra is arguably the least freeway-connected city in our county. And that explains why so many know so little about La Habra, including its location – north of Fullerton, west of the 57 freeway.
But that doesn’t tell you much about this city that proudly calls itself a “caring community.” To explore La Habra, you need to drive its streets, including ones the locals call “our freeways.”
After flying along Beach Boulevard and, later, Imperial Highway, where speed limits range from 50-55 mph, I get that surface-street-as-freeway thing. Still, La Habra is best seen through the eyes of City Manager Jim Sadro.
Understand, Sadro grew up here. Point to a big city map and he shows where in high school he chowed down hamburgers.
The recession hit all municipalities. But some were especially hard hit. Without a big mall and with relatively low property taxes, La Habra suffered.
“The recession was incredibly damaging,” Sadro allows. “We’re still feeling the effects.”
Consider that the city’s biggest employer is CVS and its warehouses, where some 900 people work. The next biggest employers are big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco.
During the recession, two new-car dealerships disappeared and tax revenue plunged. Making matters worse, an old utility tax had expired. Still, basic maintenance was needed. Streets were in poor shape.
But residents rallied with a half-cent sales tax. And today, after a six-year-project, all residential streets have been repaired or replaced. Sadro points out that one of the vacant car dealership sites will soon become a gated community with 32 homes.
It’s a series of small and large successes like these that cumulatively make a big difference in a city that covers 7.4 square miles and has nearly 62,000 people.
The support of citizens means a lot to Sadro, and not just because he’s city manager. A teacher he had at Whittier Christian High School reached back to the civic service values of the 1960s and inspired Sadro to get involved with government. He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cal State Fullerton, focusing on public administration.
Matthew Gaitan, 2, and Destiny Alvarado, 3, play around wooden ears of corn at the annual La Habra Corn Festival.
The La Habra Corn Festival is the biggest event in the city. The doggy costume contest begins at 2:30 p.m., with registration at 1:30 p.m. The corn eating contest begins at 2 p.m.Approaching two years as city manager, Sadro doesn’t look to turn the city, incorporated in 1925, upside down. His goal is similar to his predecessors: “Create a more livable city.”
He explains that the city is in a valley with La Habra Heights to the north and Fullerton’s Coyote Hills to the south. He boasts, “It’s dead quiet here at night. You don’t get that constant freeway hum.”
Still, he’s quick to declare, “We’re not a sleepy bedroom community. There’s a lot going on.”
That’s especially true after council’s vote last week to completely remodel the city’s civic center.
NEW CIVIC CENTER
Will La Habra try to one-up Newport Beach and its new $142 million city hall?
Sadro smiles thinly, suppressing a comment. Instead, he explains what will happen in La Habra over the next three years. His guiding principle follows previous city councils as well as new members: “Help the city become more of a community.”
The current City Hall will be replaced by 71 townhomes – which means more people and more sales tax. City Hall will move across the street and into existing buildings. The plan also puts City Hall closer to prized Portola Park, which includes baseball fields, a tennis center and the city’s Children’s Museum, which offers a hand-carved carousel, an interactive model train village and tours of a 1942 caboose.
Total funding? Sadro estimates that the entire civic center project, which includes updating other buildings, should cost $19 million. But the new civic center is only part of the focus
“We will create a new downtown community with a new La Habra vibe and restaurants, shops and stores,” Sadro predicts. “I’m a big believer in government presenting the opportunity and letting developers develop.”
Andrew Ho, director of community and economic development, admits he has his work cut out for him and estimates that it could take years before the area sees dramatic change. Still, he is encouraged with the plans as well as some newer additions already in the area such as G-Burger, a gourmet hamburger restaurant.
Mind you, the plans are a far cry from what Sadro’s predecessor handled back when Sadro was in high school. Those were days when tagging was a serious problem. The best the city could do was send crews out to paint over the graffiti. Sadro recalls one worker starting at 4 a.m. so residents could wake up to pristine neighborhoods.
Today, crime remains an issue just as it does in many areas. But Sadro reports that many of the old gangs are gone and tagging is less of an issue. As he talks, we pass El Centro Park in the downtown area. Kids in bathing suits squeal as they slip down a waterslide, and jump up and down in a bounce house.
Sadro mentions that it’s a city program. We pass La Bonita Park, where four softball fields rival the best in Orange County. We visit Vista Grande Park, where the city soon will build fields for soccer and football, and perhaps a dog park.
“If you don’t have to think about your government,” Sadro says, “then we’re probably doing a good job.”
By now, you’ve either forgotten about the corn festival or given up learning about it. Don’t worry. The corn festival happens to be one of my favorite Orange County events, if for nothing else because it has the same simple theme every year.
Realize there are no cornfields in Orange County. And even back in the day, La Habra apparently had no cornfields.
The idea for a festival started a couple of years after World War II, when the Lions Club needed a fundraiser. Soon, a member by the name of Bill Miller concluded that the city should have a corn festival because a lot of residents were from the Midwest.
It’s turns out Miller was onto something. Although few residents today hail from the Midwest, in less than four weeks the local Lions Club will launch its 67th Corn Festival.
Randy McMillan, a 26-year Lion, zeroes in on the hometown appeal: “I look forward to meeting up with my friends that I grew up with.”
The three-day festival includes what the Lions call Southern California’s longest-running summer parade, live music and, of course, corn eating contests.
Too corny? Perhaps. But in a very cool way.