In the southeast corner of North County, the City of Poway‘s unique melody is led by a man with a Grammy in one hand and the reins of leadership in the other. Mayor Steve Vaus, a country recording artist turned civic steward, guides Poway through a harmony of growth and preservation. His journey from a Grammy-winning musician to the mayor’s office is a testament to the unexpected pathways life can take.
“I’m probably the last person that anybody thought would ever run for mayor,” Mayor Vaus said. “But I felt like there needed to be a stronger connection allowing constituents to control the city’s destiny and their destinies within it.”
Preserving Poway’s Unique Essence
Poway, often called “the City in the Country,” is a blend of rural tranquility and urban sophistication. Preserving this “unique little jewel in the hills” is one of the ways Mayor Vaus tries to be a vessel for residents to affect the city’s destiny. As the city with the most open space as a percentage of its land mass in the county, Mayor Vaus said “one way to keep our uniqueness is to experience and appreciate it.”
“Stop and appreciate the blessings that we have in North County,” he said. “Whether it’s the open space, the trails, or the tapestry of unique businesses. We’ve really got it all.”
Mayor Vaus also urges residents to be diligent when choosing who to vote into California state office, as it has a profound effect, even on local governance.
“Do your homework and figure out what the people that you’re sending to Sacramento really stand for, if we want to have long-term local control over our cities,” Mayor Vaus said. He believes that preserving local control for communities at the legislative level will help preserve community character.
“We are not a one size fits all communities, and we shouldn’t be a one size fits all state,” Mayor Vaus said. “Community character is what makes all North County cities so unique. We are not Escondido. We are not Vista. We are not Carlsbad. We’re Poway. We’re unique, and we want to remain that way.”
Embracing North County’s Charms
The ability to easily access open spaces is one of North County’s major draws for Mayor Vaus, evoking memories of his childhood spent riding horses.
“To be able to climb on your horse and ride out the gate of whatever stable you’re in and ride for miles and hours – what a blessing that is,” he said. “You can get out where you can’t hear traffic, you can’t see buildings. It’s breathtaking if you stop and take it in. I think that broadly is true of North County.”
His appreciation extends beyond horseback rides. He explores the region on his Vespa, traveling the two-lane roads that reveal the diverse beauty of North County and help him “get in touch with what California use to be.”
An Unlikely Mayor’s Origin Story
This great love for the area is what led Mayor Vaus to Poway. Born in Los Angeles and raised on an Oregon cattle ranch, his connection with Poway deepened as he explored its trails and open spaces. In 1993, Mayor Vaus set his sights on North Poway, exploring street by street on his bike to find a home for him and his new bride.
Mayor Vaus spent most of his life in the entertainment business as a recording artist, songwriter, and producer and is in fact, America’s only Grammy-Award winning mayor. In 2012, he ran for city council and subsequently for mayor.
“I love being able to solve problems for people. Now, some of the problems are unsolvable,” Mayor Vaus said. “But within our domain, if we can find more way to say ‘yes’ and help people, that’s a good thing.” He even shares his personal cell phone number on the city website to be accessible for his constituents.
Reflecting on his first month as mayor, Vaus shared a story about a 10-year-old girl who called him to say she was worried about the traffic on her street. After receiving the message, he paid her and her family a visit.
“Her mother couldn’t have been more shocked. Here was the mayor knocking on the door, but that’s the way I feel like it should be,” Mayor Vaus said. “I’m here to speak for the people and try and make things work for them, whether it’s a little girl or a local business.”
The Running of a City – A Team Sport
For Mayor Vaus, being at the helm of Poway really is a commitment to the people. His role extends beyond city council meetings, encompassing daily interactions to further get to know council members and ensure they feel heard.
“Running a city is a team sport. If we don’t have the team all pulling in the same direction, we’re not going to get things done,” he said. Encouraging a collaborative council and fostering open communication are vital aspects of his mayoral responsibilities.
“I’ve been to plenty of council meetings in other cities, and on a regional and national level you see some people just like to fight,” Mayor Vaus said. “We don’t do that here. We try not to be distracted by shiny objects or personal agendas and just get the business of the city taken care of.”
Blending Progress and Tradition
Some of that “business of the city” includes leading Poway through transformative projects. One of their main projects is the redevelopment of Poway Road. His vision is to create a walkable downtown with new homes, restaurants, and entertainment options.
A big part of this redevelopment will include housing, as “every city is under a tremendous amount of pressure (to produce more housing). We’re stepping up and meeting the need,” Mayor Vaus said. During his tenure as mayor, the city has built some unique affordable housing projects, such as Villa Da Vida (50 units for developmentally disabled adults).
Just off Poway Road, the city finished construction on a new community center a few years ago, and they continue to work on reimagining the community park surrounding it. Another big project is a $70 million upgrade to revamp its water system to ensure a resilient water supply for generations.
While this development is needed, one of the biggest challenges Poway faces is “balancing its country aspect and its city aspect with the pressures from Sacramento (to build more homes),” according to Mayor Vaus. He continues to walk the fine line of providing more housing and preserving community character.
Carols by Candlelight
Outside of his mayoral duties, Vaus organizes an annual event of hope and charity – “Carols by Candlelight.” Originating 34 years ago, this musical extravaganza raises funds for Rady Children’s Hospital and honors first responders and military personnel.
Country music stars fill California Center for the Arts (CCAE) with their hits and their favorite Christmas songs. Snow falls on stage, Christmas trees tower, and poinsettias bloom, creating a magical atmosphere. It’s also the one time of year that Mayor Vaus still performs. It’s a gift of music to the community and a beacon of hope for families facing challenging times.
“It’s a blessing to be able to do it. My little sister was born with some problems when I was very young. She spent her only Christmas on Earth in a children’s hospital, and it just planted in me a desire to reach out to those families and brighten their Christmas,” Mayor Vaus said.
This year’s Carols by Candlelight will be held on December 8 and 9 at CCAE in Escondido. The concert has raised over $1 million for the children’s hospital over the years. Sponsorship opportunities for the event are available. For more information, visit carolsbycandlelight.com.
Read the story covering Gary Levitt, Founder of Sea Breeze Properties and North City here for more content.
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About the Author
Caitlyn Canby loves to discover and share people’s stories. She has her bachelor’s degree in Communications, Print Journalism with over 8 years of journalism experience. An Escondido native, she just moved back from Catalina Island to North County with her husband and two children to the town of Fallbrook. Caitlyn enjoys collaborating on projects as Marketing and Events Coordinator at SDNEDC, traveling, and exploring new restaurants, venues, experiences, and cultures.