The success of a town that's run like a business

It could be a multinational corporate headquarters, this chic, steel-and-concrete monolith in the hot, dry hills of north Orange County. But instead it's the $20 million high-tech headquarters of Brea, a town of about 30,000.

Begun just as California was passing Proposition 13 to deflate property taxes , this striking new structure is testimony to how a town that knows what it wants can defy the laws of economic gravity.

City officials here keep apologizing for bringing up cliches, but Brea, they explain, is doing what a lot of cities have been talking about doing for the past few years: imbibing the entrepreneurial spirit and running city government like a business.

Further, says former city manager Wayne Wedin with another apology, the lesson of Brea is that ''the little guy can win.''

Ten years ago, Brea was an unremarkable little municipality, lost in the skirts of some bigger ones, with a lot of undeveloped land. But it was in the path of progress - literally - as a major freeway cut through one end of town in the middle 1970s.

The Orange freeway would have inevitably meant some new business (''strip shopping centers and junk around the exits''), notes present city manager Ed Wohlenberg. But city leaders had already decided to seize control of their fate.

What they wanted was a strong tax base - meaning a healthy mix of business and industry among the housing tracts - along with the small-town atmosphere.

They won both battles. Their big victory was in luring a major regional shopping mall, which now has the second-highest sales per square foot in Orange County. Some major corporate offices have located here, too: Suzuki, Beckman Instruments, Security Pacific, and Union Oil, a major local landholder.

The small-town atmosphere is not a nostalgic one built around a reconstructed Main Street. This is a modern small town with both feet in the post-industrial, information age.

And Brea has done it without weighing any debt on the tax rolls. ''Those outside this community who raise eyebrows may have had some of the same opportunities themselves,'' says Mr. Wohlenberg.

Brea's centerpiece, its civic center, which also houses city government offices, is wired with $2 million worth of sophisticated telecommunications equipment. Wohlenberg can hear reports from city departments on the television built into the wall next to his desk.

A conference room rigged for multiscreen slide presentations, rear-screen TV projections, and push-button communication from seats to podium is often rented out to local corporations. Downstairs, two men paint sets and discuss the styles of local directors in a luxurious, medium-size theater.

The civic center began when the town asked if it needed a separate library for the community and the high school. Town leaders decided it would make sense to double up, and the idea for a community building was born.

What made the project possible was a financial maneuver popular with savvy California cities. Brea created a redevelopment area, which means the state allows tax-free bonds to be issued for building there. Property taxes can be used to finance the bonds.

Recently, the town created a nonprofit foundation to help stabilize its future income. The foundation will build a 300-room hotel next to the civic center and use its lease income to fund arts projects, leisure services, and perhaps even the maintenance and operating costs of the civic center itself.

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