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LA MESA – On Monday night, members of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce informed the La Mesa Village Merchants Association that it planned to file for its own permit for its portion of the annual Oktoberfest event this year.
The Chamber leadership, in letters to the merchants and to La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid obtained by LaMesaToday.com, also pledged to shift its finances so that the city would be fully repaid for its costs for security and other services related to the Chamber's portion of the three-day festival that brings thousands to La Mesa each fall.
“As a leading organization representing the business community of the city we fully understand the importance of fiscal responsibility,’’ the Chamber letter to the city says. “In light of the many challenges all local governmental agencies face with ongoing cutbacks of revenues from the state and federal governments, it is not only appropriate but essential that we step up to the plate and contribute our fair share.’’
The Chamber’s agreement to “full cost recovery’’ that the city has been moving toward for all special events will undoubtedly be embraced by the city and will also put pressure on the Merchants Association, which has counted on city support for a number of downtown promotional events, including Christmas in The Village, the seasonal Thursday night car shows, and its annual Antique Faire.
Deena While, owner of Readers Inc. and the Merchants Association treasurer, said her organization was surprised by the Chamber's move, but wouldn't fight it. She said the association filed their portion of the permit Tuesday morning so the city could review the entire event.
"I think the meeting with the Chamber was amicable,'' While said. "In the past the city hasn't been amenable to issuing two permits for the same event, but we'll go forward and see how it works out.''
She said if the Merchants are forced to pay the city for the full cost of its support for security and public works at Oktoberfest (she estimates that at $75,000 to $80,000), the loss of income could threaten other Merchants Association events like the car show and Christmas in the Village, which count on Oktoberfest profits for support.
Madrid said this morning the city's fiscal challenges are forcing it to get full cost recovery for all events and he thought Oktoberfest should be included in that.
The Chamber has partnered with the Merchants Association for several years in producing the annual Oktoberfest with the Chamber operating the popular beer garden (pictured above). The event is a big money maker for both organizations, which count on the profits generated to help run the organizations’ events for the rest of the year. This move to file for a separate permit could be seen as a symbolic effort by the Chamber to rein in the Merchants Association which has become increasingly contentious with city officials in recent months, particularly over the effort to form a Property Based Improvement District in the downtown area.
In its letter to the merchants, Chamber leaders hint at this difference: “We realize that the La Mesa Village Merchants Association may not embrace the same philosophy and that is why we are submitting our application separate from your organization.”
The PBID process, which would result in downtown property owners paying a special assessment to maintain street improvements the city is building, has raised tensions between some merchants who fear the impact on rents and feel the city should be using parking meter money and sales taxes generated downtown to maintain the streets.
Whether or not downtown property owners agree to form a special assessment district to maintain street improvements, it is increasingly clear that the so-called PBID process is putting pressure on the Downtown Merchants Association to change and improve its operations in ways that go beyond Oktoberfest.
Miguel Rojas, owner of the La Torta Cafe, has become an increasingly public critic of the Merchants Association, complaining about what he says is lax process and bookkeeping, fewer public meetings and no regular elections.
"I'm not saying money is being misappropriated or anything, but things are very informal,'' Rojas said. "They need to follow their by-laws and operate like a real organization. It can't be just a few board members doing what they want and everyone else gets in line.''
Rojas was piqued when he said his attempts to revamp the association's management plan for the weekly car shows on Thursday night were summarily rejected by the board without even a public meeting to discuss his ideas.
While, the Merchants Association treasurer, said the group does follow its by-laws and accounts for the money raised and spent in the association's name.
"But it is a group of regulars who run these events,'' she said. "It is always good to be reminded that we need to revisit the by-laws and make sure we're doing everything we can in the right way.''
While acknowledged the group hasn't held regular elections because the posts are seen as a voluntary position, re-filled as people leave and others desire to join.
Arlene Moore, who runs an antique store and has led the merchants organization for several years, said the sniping about its operation is coming from those who are unfamiliar with the way the organization has managed to conduct its public promotional events over the years while still managing to operate their own businesses.
"As with all organizations, it really is the same dozen or so people who do all the work,'' Moore said. "That's just the way it is.''
Moore said she doesn't believe her organization has a problem with city officials. She said much of the recent problems stem from the pressure the recession has brought to local businesses.
"Yes when money became so tight we went to the city and asked them to take over the maintenance of flower pots,'' she said. "That wasn't because we were shirking our duty. Businesses were hurting. Businesses everywhere were hurting. Can't they see that?''