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Booth-switching blues 

Disaffected business owners are growing weary of the Downtown Association

More conflict is brewing between the SLO Downtown Association, SLO County Farmers’ Market Association, and now downtown business owners who have been largely excluded from the debate.

“We have had to go fishing for information,” one business owner—let’s call him Mike—said of the Downtown Association. “And we’ve been lied to.”

Another business owner, let’s call him John, said, “It’s wrong. It’s not fair. They’re doing injustice to the businesses they’re supposed to be protecting. … Plus, it’s wrong they don’t talk to us about it.”

Wounds have barely healed after a heated SLO City Council meeting on Feb. 2, which packed the room with people protesting the Downtown Association’s coup to overtake management of the farmers’ section of Thursday Night Promotions. The Downtown Association unilaterally took control of the farmers’ section on Jan. 28 after Farmers’ Association Administrator Peter Jankay resigned from the Downtown Association’s promotions board.

Not long after the Feb. 2 public blowout, members of each association met on the morning of Feb. 9 during the regular Downtown Association meeting. Both sides agreed to communicate better, and everything seemed to be all sunshine and roses.

But talks between the sides are ongoing, and the delay has further drawn business owners into the fray. In fact, the newest fight is over the same problem that kicked off the conflict roughly around last September.

The biggest issue, it seems, is where the farmers’ booths are placed.

According to business owners who spoke to New Times, Wineman Hotel construction ate up street space for booths as work crews extended the sidewalk; before the construction, the farmers on that stretch of Higuera Street would rotate their booths each month from one side of the street to the other. Several business owners depend heavily on foot traffic and revenue boosts from the market, but business is best when their storefronts are unobstructed by booths.

Mike said a good Thursday night without a booth in front of his store could pull in as much as 20 percent of his business for the week. Now, he has a booth constantly blocking his store and said Thursday nights only bring in about 5 percent for the week.

“We’ve lost a huge amount of revenue,”
he stressed.

John said his sales double when there’s no booth in front versus when there is.

The word from the Downtown Association to those business owners seems to have  been inconsistent. John said they were first told there would be booths on both sides of the street, but were offered a concession that they could set up their own booth on the Wineman side and draw power from the hotel building. They reluctantly accepted.

Then they were told the booths would again switch from one side to the other.

“We’re like, ‘OK, back to the way it was. We can live with that,’” John said.

But nothing happened. Despite the Downtown Association’s reported assurances, the booths have been permanent fixtures everywhere except in front of the Wineman property. Business owners said the space in front of the hotel and Chipotle restaurant is one of the few places never blocked, but farmers’ booths continue to rotate elsewhere. John said he was told there would be booths on both sides of the street starting April 15 but, “I just have a funny feeling it’s not going to last very long.”

With no response as to why a portion off the street is immune from the historical booth-switching agreement, suspicions are high that businesses on the Wineman side are getting sweet deals.

“So how come our holy fit loses over their holy fit?” John said.

Representatives from the Wineman family who own the property did not return a call for comment.

It may seem an easily solvable problem—if not a benign issue that should never have been a problem—but questions to the Downtown Association and the Farmers’ Market Association are treated with the same secrecy as a nuclear-weapons trade.

Downtown Association representatives have said the negotiations are “confidential.” Jankay of the Farmers’ Association told New Times, “About all I’m at liberty to say right now is we are still in negotiations and we’re hopeful for a resolution that would satisfy both parties—hopefully soon.”

Steve Johnson, an attorney representing the Downtown Association, declined to comment.

Since the initial public ruckus, both sides sat down for one mediation session, according to SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick.

“The city’s overall interest is the health and vitality of the market,” she said, stressing that the city isn’t involved.

Though it’s not a public agency, the Downtown Association has a contract with the city to run Thursday Night Promotions. The city funnels taxes from downtown businesses to the association, estimated at $216,000 this year. Such a quasi-public role seems only to add fuel to the fire from business owners who are asking questions but getting few answers.

“As a business owner, they don’t do anything for us,” Mike said.

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected].

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