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Paso in perspective
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 Restaurant.


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 on television.”


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 over us.”

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, Mecham said.

“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 condemned buildings.

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,” he said.
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.”

CELEBRATING LIFE
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 Building.


“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 shaking stopped.

“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 fine wine.

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.

NOT FORGOTTEN
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 added.

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 dblackburn@newtimesslo.com. Arts Editor Brandi Stansbury can be reached at bstansbury@newtimesslo.com.

 




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