Are border battles bad for biz?

How Murrieta’s business leaders are fighting a bad rep

Marketplace by APM


A month ago, if you’d Googled “Murrieta, California,” you’d get completely unsurprising results. Links to city government, the local chamber of commerce and various popular restaurant locations would have appeared in your browser.

Now, when you search “Murrieta,” you get a flurry of news reports, blogs, and images about the ugly fight over immigration that the city has been at the epicenter of in southern California. You see people spewing angry words, threatening violence and, yes, even spitting on each other outside the California Border Patrol station within the city limits.

Murrieta, a place most people never heard of, is now well-known. Unfortunately for the members of its community who take attracting jobs and big business seriously, it’s now associated with hateful behavior aimed at migrants — mostly women and children.

“La Cucaracha” comic strip by Lalo Alcaraz from July 14, 2014

You may ask: but who was going to do business in Murrieta anyway? Well Murrieta, small though it may be, actually has a detailed vision — one that was crafted long before the ugliness over immigration attracted national news crews to their community.

The city of about 100,000 is located in between Los Angeles and San Diego. While most people commute outside of the city for employment, the Chamber of Commerce has a impressively lengthy business plan for a community Murrieta’s size and the City Hall hosts a tech incubator. That indicates that Murrieta is a place where business is taken quite seriously. So much, in fact, that the city has hired a crisis manager to deal with some of the media attention.

So, what’s a community to do when it scores a reputation — earned or unearned — for being a place where hatred is allowed to exist? Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty reporter Noel King and producer Lindsay Foster Thomas recently traveled to Murrieta to see what was on the hearts and minds of local business leaders, residents and demonstrators (whose numbers have tapered down a lot since buses carrying migrants have stopped coming to the city).

Last week, Hispanic business owner Norbert Buenrostro celebrated a happy occasion. Mariscos Las Palmas, the seafood restaurant he opened with his father Efrain, was welcomed into the Murrieta Chamber of Commerce with a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

Chef Efrain Buenrostro Barrajas smiles for the cameras at the ribbon cutting for Mariscos Las Palmas in Murrieta, CA on July 11, 2014

There was lots of applause and grinning, but not much conversation about recent events in their city.

“He just doesn’t want to send the wrong message to people, to customers, thinking he’s for it or against it. He is an immigrant, but we choose not to talk about it because it’s so sensitive,” says Buenrostro about his dad.

Patrick Ellis, president of the Murrieta Chamber of Commerce, was more than willing to discuss the protests and potential fallout. “It’s always a concern when something happens that paints a black eye on the city. And you have to do the best you can to get through it,” he said. There are businesses, although Ellis wouldn’t name them, that are worried about moving to a place that might be perceived as unwelcoming to a diverse or immigrant population.

Economist John Husing agrees that Murrieta’s new rep could derail the chamber’s vision for attracting new business to the city.

“They [local business owners] are looking at this as an absolute embarrassment for Murrieta. The best statement I heard made is: ‘You really don’t want to be in a place where people are spitting on each other.’ This was not good for business,” Husing says.

It’s costing Murrieta money, too, as this article in the LA Times reports:

City employees have worked long hours keeping residents informed, controlling protesters lined up in front of the station and fielding media inquiries. That is taking an economic toll, said [Murrieta Mayor Alan] Long. City officials estimate they’ve doled out $50,000 in overtime pay.

No new buses carrying migrants into Murrieta have materialized in the last few days and this month’s events may soon be in the city’s rear view mirror. People have short memories, but the Internet never forgets.

Have a listen:

Check out Noel King’s full report on Marketplace and more photos from Murrieta, California here.

Read this, too:

This story got us wondering what other cities have had to overcome a big blow to their images and reputations. Looking around, we found this interesting piece on Dallas, Texas by City Lab. Do you know of other examples?