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SLO Downtown Association wants independence 

San Luis Obispo's Downtown Association is set to become what city staff termed "a whole new animal" to eliminate the need to comply with laws such as the Brown Act and the Political Reform Act.

The City Council adopted a new Downtown Strategic Business Plan presented by the Downtown Association on Oct. 2, setting the change in motion.

The business owners' association has concluded that its status as a city advisory body has created "operational barriers" and "ambiguities" in accomplishing its goals "without running afoul of laws constraining the activity of governmental bodies," according to a staff report.

Under the new plan, the Downtown Association will become a nonprofit agency by July 1, 2008.

"This is a new era for downtown. This is a big deal," the group's administrator, Deborah Cash,

said at the meeting.

"As an advisory body, are we a duck?" Cash said, referencing the "whole new animal" idea. "Everybody laughs, but sometimes it's not so funny. Let's define this thing, and eliminate the gray area."

She pointed out that 501(c)(6) nonprofit status would allow lobbying and tax-deductible contri-butions.

The Downtown Association is currently facing a lawsuit filed by Ernie Dalidio for its alleged lobbying against the development of the Dalidio Ranch into a mixed-use shopping center.

As a city advisory body, the Downtown Association's meetings are open to the public, though minutes of their last two meetings show no one from the public attended to comment on the new Downtown Strategic Business Plan. A "town hall meeting" on the plan in July requested members of the public to RSVP before attending.

In addition to the changes in the association's political structure, the newly adopted plan includes subtle, but significant, differences from the 2001 Downtown Strategic Business Plan.

The original plan developed in 2001 as a response to the proposed shopping center on Dalidio's property was written by Berkeley-based consultant Jeffrey Eichenfield and Doug Loescher from the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. It emphasized the importance of protecting historic resources and improving parking, among other goals.

The new plan without National Trust participation states that in 2001, "the community saw downtown as mostly a specialty retail, dining, and cultural district. Today, more office, residential, and hotel uses are desired and proposed."

It quotes a market study for the proposed Garden Street Terraces hotel project: "SLO has the potential to develop into a vibrant upscale community."

To encourage hotel developments and housing downtown, the plan calls for the Downtown Association to "support improvements that will appeal to overnight visitors and hotel developers." New lighting fixtures and street tree removal/replacement will be paid for by Measure Y sales tax funds, it states.

Although the 2001 strategic plan promised that the Downtown Association "will work to protect downtown's historic resources" meaning buildings as a "high priority," the new plan changes the wording to "historic character."

The latest plan also recommends that existing surface parking lots should be "put to better and higher use," such as commercial development, and states that the association will advocate for construction of a new parking structure on Palm and Nipomo streets.

The Downtown Association's 11-member board of directors includes developer Tom Copeland, three representatives from real estate firms, and seven owners of small businesses including bars and a hair salon.

The City Council also voted to look into raising the current fees paid by the 650 members of the Downtown Association as part of the business improvement district. Around half of the members pay less than $100 a year, with 30 percent paying only $25 a year.

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