City of Indian Wells
A City Of Resilience
Words By Cameron Grimm Tripepi Smith
Photographs By City of Indian Wells
As COVID-19 continues to dominate the global discourse and the world faces month after month amid a pandemic, cities across the country (including those in the Coachella Valley) have had to adapt in ways one could never have imagined. To those looking for a silver lining in all of this, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the value of resilience and perseverance. In the case of Indian Wells, it also presents overwhelming support for planning ahead. Looking to what may lie ahead was — and continues to be — the strategy for this 5,000+ resident desert community.
As a tourist destination, the City depends on large-scale events to support the local economy. In 2019, 65% of revenue was drawn from Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), sales tax and admissions tax, most of which came from tourist dollars. The cancellations of the BNP Paribas Open, Coachella, and Stagecoach music festivals, as well as various conferences and seminars set to take place at local resorts, made a significant impact on the bottom line for the end of FY 2019-20 and likely will for FY 2020-21 as well.
Fortunately, Indian Wells was as well-prepared for an economic disaster as it could be. In past years during times of economic growth, the City made the choice to aggressively pay down debt, stock money in its reserves and practice long-term planning to put itself in a position to weather an economic downturn. Having prepared in this way, the City was able to quickly and effectively adjust its financial strategy to mitigate the impact to the community and set new goals and timelines for economic development.
In addition to providing information to promote the safety of residents, one of the City’s top priorities was to ensure the local business community was as informed as possible. To centralize all the relevant information and assist local businesses during the pandemic, the City created a webpage dedicated to local business resources, complete with tools, links, and helplines from Federal, State, County, and local resources. Staff continuously promoted these benefits via social media and through emails and newsletters to residents since March.
The City Council also took steps to protect businesses who were struggling financially by adopting a moratorium on evictions for tenants who were unable to pay rent as a result of substantial decrease in business income caused by the pandemic. In partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, the City redirected staff and resources from the Visitor Center to assist business owners by answering general questions and directing them to available resources. The City also designed and offered signage on maskwearing requirements free of charge to local businesses. In the vein of community connectedness, City Mayor, Ty Peabody, regularly communicated with residents via email to encourage supporting local businesses, offering community resources and thanking residents for staying safe and keeping case numbers low.
While the lost revenue from tourism dollars meant the City had to defer planned charitable contributions and capital improvement projects, it was able to selectively continue on with other projects that it felt would spur additional growth and revenue. The City moved forward with development plans like The Huntley, a limited collection of 18-home mid-century modern homes located at the northwest corner of Blackfoot and Warner Trail. Owners will enjoy exclusive access to the resort-style pool, landscaped grounds, manicured lawns, citrus orchard and desert flora. In fact, according to the Desert Realtor Association, August 2020 home sales in the City were up 95% compared to the same month last year as buyers take advantage of low interest rates.
In addition to residential growth, the City has not let the current state of affairs stand in the way of resort improvements and developments. One of the City’s most popular hotels, the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells, completed construction and opened its new waterslide and lazy river in August 2020 (following State safety measures of course). This upgrade was part of a larger $20 million remodel including upgrades to the lobby, restaurants, and meeting space. The Renaissance Esmeralda also made a $20 million investment to renovate their lobby, bar and all of their rooms. While the resorts are still experiencing a dip in visitors from out of town and a restricted capacity, The Renaissance and Hyatt have adapted by promoting resident “staycations” with discounted room rates. Other resort properties, including the Indian Wells Resort Hotel, and the Sands Hotel & Spa, have all remained open to visitors with enhanced safety measures. These renovations and adaptations, as well as the implemented safety protocols in light of the pandemic, add to the sophisticated venues and unique experiences that residents and visitors discover in Indian Wells and promote its standing as a premier resort destination.
Additionally, a renewed interest in a vacant property site located at Miles Avenue and Highway 111 has Indian Wells in talks to develop a new, four-star hotel — adding to the City’s list of resort properties and enticing even more visitors to the desert. All of this would be positive news even in the best of times, but the fact that it’s happening during one of the most economically challenging times in the country’s recent history makes the victories that much sweeter.
The City-owned Indian Wells Golf Resort has also adapted to new circumstances. When operations temporarily ceased following Governor Newsom’s stay at home executive order, the resort’s restaurant, the VUE, predicted more than $1 million in operating losses. Participation in the County-driven Great Plates program, a service that provides meals to seniors in the community who are unable to cook for themselves or are in a high-risk category, generated unexpected revenue and meant losses were less than previously expected. The VUE also offered grocery items, curbside pickup and takeout deals to incentivize community members to patronize the restaurant and offer an additional resource for residents to obtain safe groceries and meals. The Golf Resort’s pro shop also opened for online shopping and curbside pickup after the shutdown to keep residents safe while encouraging shopping locally. When ever-evolving executive orders mandated outdoor-only dining, the City Council waived permit fees to help restaurants expand their patio dining capabilities while adhering to state safety guidelines.
An organization that values transparency, the City released a COVID-19 financial portal on the City website to continually update residents on the financial impacts of the pandemic. This information helped businesses and residents alike to better understand the financial state of the City. Reconfiguring the budget to reflect the City’s new reality, Council and staff remain hopeful that through reductions in operating costs, cash flow saving and expenditure deferrals there will not be a need to dip into reserves. To generate one-time revenues during the tough economic climate, a City-owned property was sold, as was backfill, amounting to close to $1 million in revenue. Indian Wells also plans to move forward with drafting and adopting a new general plan to create opportunities for growth and forecast long-term plans and goals for the City. The Council has an ambitious goal to break even or be cash flow positive again in the general fund by June of 2021.
As a City that puts fiscal planning, responsibility and forward-thinking as the primary motivators behind their actions, it allows for investments in infrastructure and sustained growth that attracts more visitors to the benefit of local businesses. The tight-knit community is one that values supporting the local economy and offering resources when times are tough. It is how this small City in the desert will persevere through even the most challenging of times.
MAYOR: Ty Peabody
MAYOR PRO TEM: Dana Reed
COUNCIL MEMBERS: Richard Balocco,
YEAR INCORPORATED: 1967
Total Population: 5,602
Median Age: 65.9
Annual Growth Rate: 0.91%
Average Household Income: $161,818
Median Household Income: $108,000
(% of population age 25 and older)
High School Diploma: 13.94
Bachelor’s Degree: 27.09
Graduate / Professional Degree: 23.81
(% of population)
Professional / Scientific / Tech Services: 13.49
Healthcare / Social Assistance: 12.17
Real Estate / Rental / Leasing: 10.46
Retail Trade: 9.80
Other Services (Excluding Public Administration): 8.15
Accommodation / Food Services: 6.33
Educational Services: 5.89
Admin / Support / Waste Management Services: 4.30
Wholesale Trade: 3.30
Public Administration: 3.03
SOURCE: Esri/Coachella Valley Economic Partnership