Tucked in an office in the Public Works department, Environmental and Natural Resources Director Chris Helmer, does work not many people know about. He is the man behind many of the city’s improvement projects.
Helmer who is originally from San Diego, grew up in Poway and is an avid surfer. As a child he dreamed of become a fishing boat captain but his plans changed. He went to UC Santa Cruz and received a Bachelor degree in Earth Science. During that time he also worked with Scripps Earthquake Center mapping faults. “With the recent earthquakes I have seen some of old colleagues on TV,” he said. After he finished his degree he did more research work at Scripps and worked as a state lifeguard mostly in North County between Torrey Pines and Carlsbad.
After taking three years off he went back to school and received a Master’s Degree from UC Santa Barbara in Environmental Science and graduated in 2008. “It was at the height of the recession and by chance I ended up in Imperial Beach. I’ve been here 10 years,” he said. At first Helmer thought he would have a career in the private sector since he had no experience working for cities but he happened to be at the right place at the right time as the city was going through a transition where there had been some unplanned development.
Once he was hired by the city, Helmer was environmental programs manager for five years, assistant public works director for a few years under Director Hank Levine and filled in for one year after Levine retired. “Now I’m developing programs. It’s fun work, some the community never sees,” he said.
Helmer’s first project when he started working in Imperial Beach was creating the bike path on Old Palm Avenue. “One of my main focus is to deal with making the city more accessible. Imperial Beach is one-and-a-half mile by one-and-a-half mile, it’s perfectly flat. If you live in town there is no reason on weekends to not walk or bike. This could be the most walkable community in San Diego,” he said. Helmer takes this statement to heart. He lives in North Park and in the summer he rides his bike to the ferry on the San Diego side and rides to Imperial Beach on the bike path all the way to his office in the Public Works building at the end of 10th Street on the bay. He also rides his bike around town, whether he has to pop in at city hall or check on a project.
Another big part of Helmer’s responsibilities is storm water management. “We manage the water quality of the watersheds - the Tijuana River and San Diego Bay. Imperial Beach is the leading agency for both with the city and the county. That’s something that goes unnoticed,” he said.
One project that is currently undergoing under Helmer’s supervision is the Imperial Beach Boulevard Improvement Project which has been 90 percent funded by three grants. “In small cities we have a small overhead, we don’t waste money. We get more bang for the bucks,” he said. Of all the work Helmer has done in the city, the one he is most proud of is this project. “I’ve worked on it for the last five years. People don’t realize how nice it’s going to be,” he said.
Helmer is currently writing a grant for $8 million for improvements to Veteran’s Park with a new community center, the enhancement of dog park, redoing the 1960s irrigation system that is currently in place, and a Navy SEAL memorial in collaboration with Navy SEAL Foundation.
Helmer believes the success of the city is due to the the city council’s involvement in the many committees working with other cities and agencies. “The mayor is driven to take care of the water quality issues and the city [the mayor of a city of 27,0000 residents gets to sit next to the mayor of San Diego] has prominence… because we are on the border we have connections to the cities to the south,” he said. Helmer is currently working on strategies for solutions to the sewage issue coming from Tijuana. “We think there should be a state of emergency,” he said and praised the legal action taken by the city who has been joined by Chula Vista, San Diego, the Port, Surfrider, the state of California water quality and state land commission. “The spark was lit by Imperial Beach,” he said.
Overall, Helmer explained his main job is to run the parks, the city facilities and environmental programs. He said he and the other staff members take pride and ownership in the work they do in the city. Any time there is a construction project there are unplanned events and he praised the city’s Civil Engineer Juan Larios for his dedication, an employee who spends more than 12 hours a day at work to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“My next goal is a community center with recreation programs for the city to expand opportunities for seniors and youth. My own personal view is a city is judged by how it takes care of youth and seniors. There is tremendous room for improvement,” he said. Helmer envisions creating a recreation district for South Bay so that money and facilities would be easier to obtain. “There is a lot of underutilized space in Chula Vista, if we pool together as a region we can make the project sustainable,” he said.
On the issue of development in the city he believes it is inevitable, but the city has more leverage than in the past. “Imperial Beach is the last coastal community that hasn’t been developed yet. It’s changing. There is a lot of interest in underused parcels…How do you develop it? Can you do it sustainably? Not take the first offer that comes along… These days you can get more than you would have in previous years. It’s about making the right decision,” he said.
Over the years Helmer has helped facilitated the creation of art around the city that has somewhat gone unnoticed. Little bits of art - little hidden gems waiting to be discovered like the ones on the side of the public works fence parking lot.
Helmer wears many hats in the city and manages to do it with a smile. “It’s fun to be on the active side of getting projects done,” he said of his job. His next project is the design of the skate park and lining up contracts. “It’s hard not to like your job when you make people happy,” he said.