Palm Springs City Councilmember Paul Lewin is the third generation of his family to call Palm Springs home. His parents and grandparents owned the iconic Adagio Galleries and B. Lewin Galleries in Palm Springs for decades. Paul began working in the family business in 1985, at age 14, starting as a salesperson and moving up to become gallery director and owner in 1999. He has a BA from UCLA in Geography/Environmental Studies and earned a Master’s in International Development from The George Washington University in Washington, DC. Since 2006, Paul Lewin has served as CFO to K&L Endeavors, an innovative distance learning company that provides computerized traffic school services under the name BestTrafficSchool.com. Paul co-founded and chaired Coachella Valley Citizens United, a coalition of citizen and business groups that successfully blocked the proposed construction of California’s largest jail just four miles from Palm Springs. Deeply committed to serving the community that has given him so much, Paul was named to “40 Under 40,” Palm Springs Life Magazine’s award for civic activism.
Paul, we first met back in 1999 when you were running Adagio Galleries and I was your advertising representative for PalmSprings.com. It’s so fun to catch up with you after all these years and to hear all about your hard work and vision for the City we both love. Did you always want to be in public service? I know you studied International Development at The George Washington University–why the shift from global to local?
Yes, your website was really very effective for us in terms of advertising because I could never get our website to rank higher than yours!
But to answer your question, I never really thought I would hold an elected office. I have always just liked public policy. When I was accepted into graduate school at GWU I was also accepted for the master’s program in Urban Planning at UCLA, so when it came to education you could say I chose the “global” but over time, I learned that I could make the most impact on a local level. I wouldn’t change a thing, but that urban planning degree would sure come in handy right now…
You’re a third-generation Palm Springs resident and have said you virtually “grew up on Palm Canyon Drive.” How have you seen the City change since your childhood? What changes would you still like to see occur?
Yes, it’s true it feels like I grew up on Palm Canyon Drive. I started working in our family gallery at age 14, but before that I was frequently at Lewin Galleries as well. Back when my dad started B. Lewin Galleries in the early 1970s (where Lulu California Bistro now is), Palm Canyon was a very different place. It was like a chic “Mainstreet USA”–we had jewelry stores, shoes stores, fur stores and more art galleries than you could imagine.
There are a lot of reasons for the changes in our city, such as the growth of East Valley cities, not to mention the complete revolution in the need for retail space due to the Internet. So while downtown has seen many changes, business have come and gone and it still remains the go-to spot for residents and tourists alike. In fact, I think we have the most vibrant and fun downtown in the valley. In the past few years, we’ve also seen a new energy in Uptown, with restaurants, galleries, and modern furniture stores establishing a strong hip and trendy presence in this corridor. I think Palm Springs can be the West Hollywood of this valley.
We have so much to offer, and that is why I strongly believe that we continue to embrace the younger demographic–the twenty to thirty something generation. In order to do that, we need to give them a reason to come to Palm Springs. Coachellafest and Jason Dibler’s Ace Hotel proves that young people will come here, and it proves that they don’t mind the heat. I think we need to be willing to take some risks and build on that momentum because young people are economic multipliers: give them a good time, and they will come back several times in their lives.
I couldn’t agree more! Paul, what led you to run for the Palm Springs City Council? Please tell us a little about your experience serving on the council.
There are two major events that made me want to serve the people of Palm Springs. The first was a plan to build a 7,200 inmate jail (the largest jail in California) one exit from Hwy 111. That was really bad public policy, and I worked with many local and valley residents to shift that plan to what we have today: an expansion of the existing jails. In fact, Indio is getting a new 1,100 inmate state-of-the-art facility as we speak, and I salute the county supervisors, John Benoit in particular, for making that policy shift.
The second was the proposal to rebuild several blocks of downtown. I’m no expert on development, but I realized that not a lot of the existing council had been Palm Canyon merchants like I had been, and my father and grandfather before me. I figured it would be up to the people of Palm Springs–if they wanted me to serve, I would. Now, I’m really humbled and honored by their confidence and I hope to make them proud.
You’re passionate about making downtown Palm Springs viable and vibrant for shopping and business 365 days a year. You stated you’d like the ability to control the temperature between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Sounds good to me! Tell us a little about how you see that happening.
Well, as a former downtown merchant, I have spent years watching business dry up and hardworking families lose everything during the summer season. Some days only one or two people would come by. It was during those long summer months that I realized that our city absolutely needs to provide shade and mist during the summer season, just like every restaurant patio does. I’m hoping we’ll be able to test my theory with the newly designed downtown, where I will be pushing for retractable shade and cooling systems to be incorporated into the project. Can you imagine being able to tell people to “Cool off in Palm Springs this summer?” It will be a marketing bonanza!
In essence, if we want to attract quality retailers we are going to have increase the number of viable shopping days per year and that means making the downtown area a comfortable environment in the summer.
Another one of your goals is to make Palm Springs more “film friendly,” a process outlined in your Film Initiative Program–and already underway via waiving film permit fees. You said “We don’t only want to be Hollywood’s playground, we also want to be their stage.” Tell us a little more about that–and about the ways in which it’s already happening.
Well, let’s face it: we can’t make screenwriters put Palm Springs into their scripts, but we can make our city one the most friendly places in the country to do business. Being “film-friendly” means changing the culture of our city to embrace the industry; it means finding solutions to the industry’s problems, and it means providing incentives for productions to be filmed here. I was inspired when I learned that New York City does not charge any film permit fees, and yet Palm Springs did. I did some research and was really impressed by the Made in NY approach.
Now, I don’t have any illusions that we are going to be the next Hollywood, or New York City, but anyplace we can build our economy is an opportunity we need to explore. Right now there is a Canadian reality show called “Occupation Double” that is being filmed in Palm Springs. This one production will generate some 3,000 hotel room nights during our off-season. They’ve also rented a number of major properties for filming. This has a real impact on the lives of local residents–from restaurants and retailers to the property management companies and hotels. Plus, every time our city appears on a screen, we are getting advertising–in this case it is with our Canadian tourist market.
Speaking of Hollywood, you spearheaded bringing the Marilyn statue to Palm Springs. Though that move has been an unparalleled success, you did initially catch some flak for that enterprise. You seem to be a man willing to take a few risks in order to shake up the town…for the common good. Would you agree with that statement?
Yes, I was a bit surprised at how vehemently some people did not like the idea of bringing this iconic statue to Palm Springs, but I also knew it would be a heck of a lot of fun. In my mind, we could either have a big hole in downtown for the next couple of years, or we could do something that would make national news and generate 100,000 Facebook photos. I was willing to take the flak in order to give our city a shot at some major notoriety. However, it would have gone nowhere without the support of my fellow council members, and the many community members who paid for her transportation – remember, we did not use public money to bring her here, that was funded by PS Resorts and many others.
Also I would like the record to be clear, it was Brian Vatcher and Mark Jones of Brighthaus Marketing who brought the idea to me: they put me together with the Sculpture Foundation, which is the owner of Forever Marilyn. Six weeks later we did the unveiling of the statue and cameras have been clicking ever since.
I’ve taken quite a few Marilyn photos myself! Paul, when you’re not dedicating your time to making Palm Springs an even better place, how do you spend your free time? What would a typical weekend look like for you?
A typical weekend will find me with my nose buried in a book or newspaper if its hot, or planning a nice meal with friends or family. I love spending time with the people that mean the most to me. My good friend Jason Bruecks of the Camelot Theaters organizes these great weekly hiking trips, and my sister Lisa recently moved back to the desert; so I am blessed to have my two nephews and my niece close by. Lisa works downtown at the Jones Agency now, and I’m hoping that means she and I will be able to see each more often.
And what is it that you most love about Palm Springs?
I love the great life this town has given me. I guess it was a different era, but I had a sort of Tom Sawyer childhood: kids rode their bikes everywhere, we built pools in Tahquitz Creek, went frog and lizard hunting and helped ourselves to fruit trees wherever they were. The teachers I had cared for us kids greatly, and educated us well. Palm Springs gave three generations of my family an opportunity to succeed, and I want to repay the City by doing my small part to guide it upwards over the next few years. So what is it I love about this city? It has the best quality of life; I mean think about it: we live in a place that other people pay to vacation in! Who could ask for more?
Indeed! Paul, thanks so much for sitting down with me today and sharing your story and your vision for Palm Springs. We thank you for your vision and perseverance in making Palm Springs an even more amazing place to live, work and play!