Motown isn’t the only place where the car industry is causing problems.

In San Juan Capistrano, Calif. where car dealerships have long been a mainstay and an answer to the city’s bottom line, it’s time to look elsewhere toward other businesses that could help the city grow, according to Mayor Mark Nielsen.

“The biggest issue we face relates to the long-term financial health of the city.  The recent economic downturn has pointed out the need for our city to diversify its revenue sources. Too much reliance has been placed in the past on new development to keep funding capital improvements.

“We also need to find other retailers to provide future sales tax revenue and not place such a great reliance on new car sales for almost half of our sales tax revenues. While we continue to support our auto dealers, and will do what we can to help them grow their business, we cannot look only to them to keep us healthy in the future.”

A Businessman

The 49-year-old Nielsen knows a thing or two about business, that’s for sure. When he isn’t wearing his mayor’s hat, he is the chairman and director of various software companies and a member of the Executive Committee of Tech Coast Angels (a southern California group of “Angel” investors who are similar to venture capitalists). Both jobs have some similarities, making life a little easier for Nielsen.

“Running a business is easier on a number of levels, especially when it comes to decision-making and planning,” he shares.

For example, he says that in government, there are numerous laws that thwart efficiency in operations and impose long lag times on decisions. For instance, you cannot discuss things with your other council members except in public session and only if the issue was published in advance on the agenda, Nielsen says.

“While this is important for public transparency and participation, it makes it very difficult to quickly and effectively work issues in the way that private industry acts.  The similarities, however, are the need to establish a clear vision and set of priorities, the need to lead by example from the top, and ultimately to make decisions that are in the best interests of the shareholders (or taxpayers), and not merely for the benefit of a select few.”

Better Than Most

Lack of new retailers aside, SJC, like many communities in So Cal, is suffering from the bad economy, but it is doing a bit better than most, says Nielsen.

“San Juan Capistrano is probably in better shape than many other cities.  We have a great staff that has helped us maintain reserves of about 50 percent of our annual operating budget. However, we have made cuts of about $2 million recently for the current fiscal year ending June 30, including cutting back on funding for social service programs and community events.”

He says he is hopeful that SJC will be able to backfill some of these cuts with private funding and new sponsorship opportunities from businesses and residents that see the importance of continuing these programs in difficult times.   

To keep the city moving along, SJC has imposed a hiring freeze and put more of a burden on existing staff to do more. It has also had to cut back on the frequency of various city services, including street sweeping, tree trimming and landscape watering; and it is reducing its support for various programs from the Chamber of Commerce and the Boys & Girls Club to cutting back funds for community events.

Who He Is

No stranger to local politics, Nielsen, born in Chicago, was elected to the city council in 2006 prior to his current post as mayor. He says being mayor is definitely more demanding.

“Finding the time to respond to all of the requests for the mayor’s time while spending quality time with my family and keeping up with my business obligations is a challenge,” he says.  “In addition, it takes discipline and commitment to ensure that you are inclusive of your whole council.  If you have a majority, it is often easy to ignore the minority view.  However, I believe that is a recipe for disaster and in the long run, will make it much harder to accomplish important goals for a city.”   

On the flip side, while serving as mayor, one can more directly influence the tone of meetings, and establish subcommittees that can move issues forward that as a council member one cannot, he says.

Fast Forward

As for what lies ahead for SJC – at least while Nielsen is in office – is to move forward with plans for the downtown revitalization.       

“Revitalizing our downtown is and has been one of my top priorities. There are no other cities in Orange County that have a true central downtown with a train depot and historic Mission all within walking distance,” he says.

SJC has the foundation for a vibrant and unique historic town center that should attract visitor and resident alike with numerous restaurants and shops in a setting that harkens back to the old world charm of the 1800s, he points out.  

“Contrary to what some think, I am not opposed to development in San Juan Capistrano, only that which detracts from the rural, equestrian and historic character of our town.  I have supported development that actually enhances our community and its unique character.  I also have been a great advocate of preserving more of our open space that is a defining asset of our city,” he says.

For example, he mentions that when anyone enters San Juan Capistrano, if driving from the north on the I-5 at night, they will see that it suddenly gets very dark.  Why?

“We prohibit building on our ridgelines and have hundreds of acres of natural land on which wildlife thrives. Recently, our citizens agreed to tax ourselves for a $30 million bond that will enhance and preserve more open space in our city,” he says.

In spite of fellow council members and half of the open space committee thinking they were crazy to pursue a $30 million bond in this economy, Councilman Tom Hribar and Nielsen pushed to go to the voters in November and they agreed by an overwhelming 70 percent to approve the bond.  

“This is a true testament to the seriousness with which San Juan residents take our open space,” he says.

Happy to serve as Mayor of SJC, Nielsen’s term will end in Dec, 2010, but don’t look for him to move up the political ladder at that point.

“Not if I want to keep a happy family and balanced work life,” he says.


Debbie L. Sklar is a Southern California resident, columnist and editor for publications around the country. For story ideas/comments, please e-mail