Thursday, July 17, 2008
Jim Sang, co-owner of Sang’s Café in Salinas, recently led a one-man petition drive to stop downtown businesses from having to shell out assessment fees to the Oldtown Salinas Association. After a month and a half of canvassing Oldtown’s 400 businesses, about a quarter of them signed on, many complaining they don’t reap any benefits from the association. Sang fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to disband the assessment district. But this time the habitual Oldtown critic caught the City Council’s attention.
The council approved the $105,000 assessment July 8, but also required the association to come up with a plan better to communicate with its members, conduct an annual survey, provide budgets twice a year and study whether the district’s boundaries need to be redrawn. Councilwoman Jyl Lutes said the 94 protests were significant, adding that it was disconcerting to see Oldtown anchors like First Awakenings and Salinas Valley Fish House sign the petition. “We have to see services change by next year,” she said at the City Council meeting. “Otherwise I don’t think we should continue the program.”
Frank Savino, Oldtown Association board president, says the group will reach out to each of the disgruntled businesses. The association pays for landscaping, marketing and advertising of Oldtown businesses. Oldtown members also organize and promote annual events like the Holiday Parade of Lights and Passport to Cherry’s. “If the association goes away, that goes away,” Savino says.
During Sang’s petition drive, Savino warned businesses in a letters, that getting rid of the association would return Oldtown to a “ghost town.” “If you want people getting shot, aggressive panhandlers, drug dealers, filthy streets… go ahead and sign that petition.”
While Sang’s petition could have stopped the assessments– this money makes up about 45 percent of the association’s budget– it wouldn’t have plunged Oldtown into lawlessness. Without that income, however, the association couldn’t afford an executive director. The events, marketing and attention to graffiti and panhandlers would disappear or be scaled back. But for businesses on the outskirts of the district, it’s harder to see these perks.
The 100-300 blocks of Main Street are the heart of Oldtown, but the district stretches as far south as Maple Street and runs between Pajaro and Lincoln streets. Grace Lin, co-owner of Evergreen Computer on South Main Street, pays about $450 a year into the district. “We pay a lot of money,” Lin says, “but I don’t think we get the benefits.”
Businesses also say there is a lack of communication and transparency between members and its board. Deanna Carvey, Oldtown’s executive director, says communication goes both ways. “We need to do a better job of reaching members,” Carvey says, “but I need to hear from members as well.” Carvey says the association’s annual report was recently mailed to members and she is also developing a newsletter. The association’s finances are on display at Carvey’s Mid Town Lane office.
While pleased with the City Council’s response to his petition, Sang would rather see the association become voluntary. “I want all the members to get a benefit,” Sang says, “and if they don’t, they shouldn’t get assessed.”