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City’s Top Land Negotiator Headed for Big Bear

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 6 -- From the pier to the airport to the Third Street Promenade, one man’s fingerprints can be found on many of the key venues that help drive Santa Monica’s economic engine.

Now, after 19 years heading the City’s Department of Resource Management, Jeff Mathieu -- who is also the City’s top real estate negotiator and oversees all City-owned housing -- is leaving his post.

On Wednesday, Mathieu spent his last day working for the seaside city before heading for the higher ground of Big Bear Lake, where he will oversee a workforce of 135 people as the new City Manager of the mountain resort town.

“The passion of the folks in our community is not excelled anywhere,” Mathieu said of Santa Monica. “It’s been wonderful…and I look forward serving in Big Bear.”

City officials in Big Bear welcomed Mathieu, saying he brings invaluable skills and a long list of accomplishments to the city.

"Mathieu's areas of expertise and prominent background make him the ideal candidate to govern the City's administration and handle future projects down the pipeline," said Mayor Bill Jahn.

Mayor Bob Holbrook called Mathieu a “dedicated employee” who service and dedication will be missed.

“Jeff is a warm, friendly person…that has helped shape the development of Santa Monica’s economic vitality,” said Holbrook. “He lays out the facts clearly, can simplify confusing reports, and his professionalism will be missed.

“We are happy, though, that he is going on to head up his own city in Big Bear,” Holbrook said.

Mathieu’s resignation comes after Planning Director Suzanne Frick left to head planning in Long Beach and Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. announced he would leave this fall to head up security at LAX.

Mathieu’s departure comes at a time when City Manager Lamont Ewell – who took over the day-to-day operations of the City – is pushing for changes giving him more power to hire and fire department heads. (See Story)

Finding someone to replace Mathieu may be tough.

The main negotiator representing the City in land deals since 1987, Mathieu was hand picked by then City Manager John Jalili to head resource management, the department newly charged with overseeing all land acquisition deals for the City.

“It used to be fragmented under many departments and I was trying to combine the real estate functions under one agency,” said Jalili. “Jeff played a key role in that.”

It was Mathieu who was charged with turning a seedy Third Street lined with pawnshops and stores that shut down when the sun set into a thriving strip visited by tourists from around the world.

“Third Street was essentially a declining area, with high vacancy rate,” Jalili said. “In fact, Third Street had never done well.”

Jalili credits Mathieu for shrewdly negotiating in a “low-key” style land deals that gave the City key properties and more open space. Mathieu recently negotiated the $35 million purchase of a Sears property on 4th Street that could serve as a terminal for a proposed light rail line.

Mathieu also negotiated the purchase of 11 acres of property from the RAND Corporation that will be part of the Civic Center development, which will include housing and parks. Other land deals sealed by Mathieu include the purchases of land to expand Virginia Avenue Park and the old Fisher Lumber site on Colorado Avenue, which also will be used for parkland.

“He doesn’t usually leave much on the table,” Jalili said of Mathieu’s negotiating style.

Mathieu, who earned a Bachelors in Open Space Management from Long Beach State, said he has worked hard to find the middle ground in real estate deals in a city that has seen a dramatic spike in land prices since he arrived in 1987.

“I think it’s important that both sides have a win,” he said. “You have to understand what is important to the seller or lessee…it is way more than just dollars and cents.”

In the RAND property deal -- which Mathieu described as one of the most important deals he oversaw -- it was important to acquire the land so Santa Monica could build a new Civic Center, while balancing the needs of RAND.

“RAND had to transfer 1,000 employees into their new building,” he said.

The deal went through without a hitch.

Other tasks have been more difficult, including some of his first acquisitions of land at 415 Pacific Coast Highway and overseeing the local airport, which has seen jet noise soar over the past two decades, pitting neighboring residents against the City.

During his tenure as head of the City's Redevelopment Agency, the tax increment annual revenue flow expanded from $2.3 million to more than $54 million, helping to bankroll the purchase of the RAND property and other major projects.

Mathieu’s replacement will face some daunting tasks, including securing more affordable housing during a real estate boom and building additional parking for the Downtown.

But in an ever-changing beach town, what the person in charge of real estate negotiations will most need is a clear vision and map of the City’s future, Mathieu said.

“It is important to establish priorities to what are the most important properties to pursue,” he said.

Mathieu said he will take the lessons learned in Santa Monica and try to apply them in Big Bear, a city that has its own set of complex problems, such as local and regional water politics, increased urban growth and tourism.

As a parting gift to Santa Monica, though, Mathieu helped craft a deal that will hopefully bring the light rail Downtown, improving mass transit throughout Santa Monica and the region.

All in all, serving in Santa Monica, Mathieu said, “has been pretty cool.”

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