Business owners: ‘Too many layers of officials involved’
STORY BY DANIEL BLACKBURN
AND BRANDI STANSBURY
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
HERE TO SERVE
A bustling crowd indicates business as usual at the French Bakery
Safety officials were huddled in an emergency session hours after the
Dec. 22 San Simeon earthquake when Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham’s
cell phone jangled.
“It was a call from a friend stationed on an aircraft carrier off
the coast of Japan,” said Mecham, “and he said, ‘God,
Frank, it looks like your whole city has been destroyed.’ With the
helicopters and cameras hovering over the downtown area, it did look bad
Mecham worries about that widespread perception now, and the impact it
might ultimately have on the city’s future economy.
But while Mecham confronts the uncertainties of tomorrow, other Paso Robles
business people are concerned about today.
City officials, fretting about liability, have relegated the responsibility
for repair and cleanup of buildings to property owners. And that policy
has placed a number of business owners in a tenuous situation.
According to Paso Robles City Manager Jim App, building owners “were
advised to engage structural engineers to assess the immediate life safety
hazards, and develop a plan to mitigate those hazards.”
He said the city “was compelled to weigh private business interests
against the threat of loss of life.”
John Fry, owner of Digital West Video Productions, is one of numerous
business owners frustrated by their inability to recover inventory, equipment,
and records from unsafe buildings, which have been “red-tagged,”
ruled by officials to be unfit for human entry.
HERE’S THE BEEF
McLintock’s owners Tunny Ortali and Bruce Breault stand in
front of their Paso location, which remains open for business.
“I know it’s a complex situation, but the attitude of the
city so far is one of ‘help yourself,’” said Fry. “I
thought there was some hope but now there is none.”
Fry has about $30,000 in equipment and another $75,000 in digitized master
tapes and other intellectual materials that he has been unable to recover
from his office in the red-tagged old Marlow Building, located in the
midst of the downtown devastation. He also left a filled bank deposit
bag, his cell phone, and other belongings on his desk as he fled the building.
“Basically, I can’t get to any of it,” said Fry, who
quickly bought new equipment in Los Angeles and secured new office space
nearby after the quake so he could continue to do business. Fry’s
main facility in San Luis Obispo was unaffected by the temblor.
Barbara Lewin, owner of Blenders on Park Avenue, a business shattered
by the quake, expressed her disappointment at the pace of recovery at
a city council meeting Monday night.
“Four weeks later, some of us have not been able to achieve any
semblance of pre-earthquake days,” she told council members. “Every
day that bricks remain on the street and fences stay up, a pall remains
Some financial aid was beginning to emerge for homeowners and businesses
as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business
Administration began handing out checks this week.
FEMA might assist in providing money for demolition of damaged buildings,
“I can understand their frustration,” Mecham said about business
owners unable to reenter their buildings. “Things aren’t moving
as fast as they could. These people are without their businesses, their
livelihood, and they have no income. People who were expecting paychecks
aren’t getting them.
“On the other hand, we have an entire city that needs to be looked
at. Yes, there is frustration. I’ve never been through something
like this. We’re all still trying to get our arms around it.”
Fry thought he could help the city with that effort by offering to hire
a cherry-picker and equip it with a camera, so that the interior of his
office and those of adjoining businesses could view interior damage.
“I also suggested that the cherry-picker could be equipped with
a steel cage, so that someone could go up and try to remove some of our
belongings,” said Fry. That idea, he thought, would satisfy the
“no feet on the floor” city rule that prevents entry into
There was discussion of temporary braces for the building, but, said Fry,
“Even if someone spent the $150,000 or so it would cost, there still
would be no guarantee that we would be allowed to enter.”
Fry said he thinks “there are too many layers of officials involved.”
“The city has taken the attitude that they will tell us what to
do. Their first thought was to avoid litigation, and I can understand
that. But if this is their final decision, then we’ll never get
our stuff out.”
Fry said he hopes to make arrangements with the contractor who eventually
handles the building’s demolition.
“If it is done right, in stages, then we could be on site to remove
the office contents. But I can’t get much response on that,”
Businesses that cater to tourists are getting top priority from the city,
Fry added. “We didn’t sell anything. Businesses like ours
are being ignored.”
A memorial wreath remains at the downtown site for Jennifer Myrick,
20, who was killed by falling debris as she tried to exit the Acorn
“There are plans in place, and they work,” said Mecham. “We
are trying to accommodate businesses. And it’s not over. We will
go over everything with city staff and ask, ‘What did we do right?
What did we do wrong? What could we do better?’ We learn from this
and hopefully we won’t suffer as much as this one.”
Mecham, whose own office is just a block from the downtown area, was at
the site of the collapsed Acorn Building within two minutes after the
“When I saw the damage, I would have sworn there could be a hundred
dead,” said Mecham. Two women were killed in the quake. Marilyn
Frost-Zafuto, 51, and Jennifer Myrick, 20, both employees of Ann’s
dress shop, were crushed as they tried to escape their collapsing building.
Referring to business owners’ complaints, Mecham said, “Does
the system work? Yes. Are there faults? No doubt. But it’s my job
to pick up the baton and carry it forward.”
Paso festival plans move forward Before the earthquake, Paso Robles had
developed into a quaint wine country town with fine dining and shopping,
luring visitors to its storybook atmosphere.
The North County town also presented itself as a desirable place to live,
where you might do nothing more than lie in a hammock all day, sipping
After the earthquake, however, Paso Robles found itself the focus of national
media, which painted the old-fashioned town as a disaster area.
Many area residents have wondered if the images of disaster will scare
off spring and summer tourists. Another concern is whether Paso Robles
will be able to rebound in time for the usual onslaught of tourists, if
they do arrive. The Paso Wine Festival, car show, and Mid-State Fair are
just around the corner.
“The plans for the Wine Festival are moving forward,” said
Stacia Momaurg, events coordinator for the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers
Association (PRVGA), which hosts the event. “We plan to be in the
park. The city plans for us to be in the park. It’s still set to
be on the same weekend: May 14-16.”
The PRVGA has had only one outside inquiry about the status of the festival,
and Momaurg assured the wine connoisseur that the festival is still on.
“The attitude here is that we are moving forward. Paso Robles Wine
Country was shaken, but not deterred. We’re open for business. All
of the wineries are open. We’ve come through [the earthquake], we’ve
worked together to do it and we’re all in good shape.”
Chris Taranto, vice president of Paso Robles’ Visitors’ and
Conference Bureau, explains that no adjustments have been made to marketing
plans because “outside of the area—any coverage regarding
the earthquake and the damage has stopped. It stopped about two weeks
after the earthquake.
“As far as our marketing message goes, it would not be correct if
we started acknowledging the earthquake in the media and then said, ‘But
we’re okay.’ Then all we’re doing is drawing attention
back to the earthquake and back to the fact that maybe things aren’t
okay. We won’t being doing that.”
Locally, the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce has been broadcasting public
service announcements giving confidence to county residents that Paso
is up and running for business. The ad runs on all American General Media-owned
stations in the area and are sure to comfort local Paso fans that they
can head up there for some good wine tasting, shopping, and country fun.
As for the highly anticipated coming spring and summer events in Paso
Robles, it’s all systems go and area fans look forward to great
vacations getaways in the North County.
Hundreds of people daily still visit the scene of the destruction
caused by Dec. 22’s quake.
Visits to site not
just morbid curiosity
Even as cleanup operations proceed around hard-hit downtown Paso Robles,
hundreds of people visit daily the scene of major destruction from quake.
Visitors stand alone or in quiet clusters, talking softly, staring through
a steel-mesh fence at the mass of brick and rubble that once was the Acorn
Building, and reading the memorials that are placed around the scene.
The people are there for a variety of emotional reasons, according to
clinical psychologist Dr. Terri Quinn of San Luis Obispo.
“It is a way for people to process their fears, sadness, and other
emotions, for them to be where the destruction occurred. There is some
curiosity, but whenever there is loss of life, the site becomes particularly
significant to people,” said Quinn.
“Sometimes tourists have been in earthquakes themselves, so being
at the scene might have real importance to them,” said Quinn.
The phenomenon goes much deeper than the simple morbid curiosity that
might be exhibited by gawkers at the scene of a fatal car crash, Quinn
She compared the quake circumstances to that of Ground Zero in New York.
“I know several people who visited the Twin Towers, and it had a
tremendous emotional impact on them because of the extent of loss of life.
In Paso Robles, there may be people who had a real connection with the
people who died. It is a way of remembering them,” Quinn added.
News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arts Editor Brandi Stansbury can be reached at email@example.com.