By Jay Steiger
Casa de Oro group works to clean up Campo Road
A source of civic pride for the residents of La Mesa is the small town feel of that community.
While it is true that La Mesa is modest in size and enjoys a positive reputation within San Diego County, La Mesa is not alone and has many bordering neighborhoods with similar appeal. Fletcher Hills to the north, Rolando and the College area are to the west, Lemon Grove to the south, and Mt. Helix to the east.
These are all notable, but there is another community to the east, one along a major transportation corridor and with a rich history — the gateway community of Casa de Oro.
Casa de Oro, which translates to “house of gold,” is centered on Campo Road, which runs from the border of Lemon Grove all the way to the mountain hamlet of Campo. The Casa de Oro section lies between Mt. Helix to the north and Dictionary Hill to the south.
When Casa de Oro was first settled, cattle were driven along a dirt road and the hillsides were dotted with citrus, avocado, and olive orchards. Today, the Casa de Oro corridor is mostly suburban residential with businesses along Campo Road. In the 1960s through the 1980s, the neighborhood was vibrant with shops and restaurants.
Recently, those businesses have struggled because residents surrounding Casa de Oro have been increasingly pulled to shop and dine in nearby La Mesa or Rancho San Diego. This, combined with the costs of real estate and leasing, and the economic disruption of the Great Recession led to a gradual decline in the number of retail and restaurant businesses.
The slowdown in local commerce was paired with a seeming disinterest by property owners in maintaining the upkeep of their storefronts and lots. The region began to look worn, littered, and faded. People were still very interested in living in the surrounding neighborhoods, but were increasingly disinterested in shopping or dining in Casa de Oro.
To compound these issues, illegal marijuana dispensaries were beginning to cluster in this region which already had a higher than average density of alcohol-based businesses.
Many residents were deeply concerned by these changes, and wanted to see a focus on improvement and renewal of the business district. In 2015, a group of community members began to meet to discuss ways of drawing needed attention to the area.
This group included long-time and newly arrived residents, parents, retirees, and people with diverse backgrounds in government, arts, business management, and faith-based organizations. All were volunteers and all had the same goal — take action to better Casa de Oro.
Supported and advised by the nonprofit advocacy organization, The Institute for Public Strategies, the group ultimately decided to call themselves the Casa de Oro Community Alliance (CDOCA), and former Grossmont Healthcare District boardmember Bob Yarris was named chairperson. Outreach was made to the County of San Diego and the Sheriff’s Department.
It was confirmed that, as with La Mesa, all marijuana dispensaries were operating illegally. The violations are civic code rather than criminal, so the shutdown process can take time, but the residents now had a way of taking a step forward. Numerous dispensaries have been forced to move and word is spreading that Casa de Oro is no longer an easy area for this kind of operation.
In addition, greater attention is being given to preventing alcohol sales to underage youth. With both a high school and middle school nearby, residents and school officials want to make sure that there is no sense of complacency regarding these teens and the number of businesses which sell alcohol. The Sherriff’s Department has an advisory role in liquor sales applications and has indicated that they are aware of the number of existing licenses and the need to use great care in granting any new licenses.
The CDOCA also sends a group of representatives to meet regularly with County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
“I appreciate the good work being done by the Casa de Oro Community Alliance and share its concerns about illegal business activities and the need to further revitalize the area,” Jacob said. “My expectation is that the Sheriff’s Department and county staff will continue to crack down on any shady operations when they pop up. We need to also keep a close watch on the number of liquor establishments and make sure our voice is heard on any new state liquor licenses.”
Jacob has also encouraged the alliance to continue to refine their goals and objectives to better assist them in applying for additional county program and grant assistance. A major next step for the CDOCA will be to develop a proposal for a special zoning area in Casa de Oro to help ensure regulatory compliance for businesses selling alcohol, tobacco, or other adult-oriented products.
Beyond partnering with law enforcement and the county, the CDOCA also wanted to organize positive grassroots events to boost civic pride and demonstrate the value of the group. A highly successful community cleanup was held in June, with nearly 100 volunteers picking up trash and pulling weeds along Campo Road in the center of Casa de Oro.
A fall festival took place in November which included food vendors, entertainment, crafts, and booths for additional civic booster organizations. Hundreds of people attended the festival and gave positive and enthusiastic approval to the event.
“A lot has been accomplished in the past year by our committed community volunteers, all of whom are highly motivated to restore Casa de Oro to a shining house of gold,” Yarris said.
While many challenges remain, the region is improving. There are now several well-regarded anchor businesses, such as Albertsons, Starbucks, Ranas Restaurant, Big 5 Sporting Goods and the Young Actors Theater (YAT). The Casa de Oro Library is a vibrant institution, and holds regular story-time and other neighborhood events.
Recently, Butlers Coffee and a CVS Pharmacy opened and there are plans for an Italian bakery as well. Additional community groups and organizations, such as the Valle de Oro Planning Commission, Grossmont/Mt Helix Improvement Association (GMIA), and the Casa de Oro Business Association have become involved, as have many area churches.
Like Casa de Oro, La Mesa also wrestles with some of the same issues of challenged neighborhoods — most noticeable along University Avenue. La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, who used to teach at Murdock Elementary, which is close to Casa de Oro, has voiced enthusiasm for the revitalization efforts.
“I know this area well and it is a great community with many families and children,” he said. “It borders La Mesa and deserves our support.”
The Casa de Oro Community Alliance celebrates the completion of La Mesa’s downtown improvement project and invites their neighbors in La Mesa to visit some of the businesses in Casa de Oro (Butlers makes a great cup of coffee) and see the progress being made and the great potential for continued renewal in this neighborhood.
—Jay Steiger is a school district and community volunteer, parent, and co-chairs the Media and Community Outreach Committee for the Casa de Oro Community Alliance. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.