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Stage Set For Oktoberfest Battle
LA MESA -- The La Mesa City Council stuck to the "one applicant" per public event standard Tuesday night and that sets the stage for a major showdown between the La Mesa Village Merchants Association and the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce over how Oktoberfest will be run in the future.
The popular October beer and brats fest has been a major fundraiser for both organizations, but the Merchants Association has fallen behind on its payments to the city, threatening its right to host the event in the future. That has also created a clear fissure between the chamber and the merchants with John Vigil, the Merchants Association Executive director, saying there isn't enough money to pay the city and allow the chamber to continue taking its profits from the popular beer garden it runs each year.
Mary England, executive director of the chamber, is remaining publicly civil about the situation, but she does point out that the chamber paid the Merchants' Association $30,000 within ten days after the last Oktoberfest, as required by its Memorandum of Understanding, with the merchants.
"Where it went? I don't know,'' England said.
Money and Oktoberfest has always been a sort of delicate issue. While the public tends to see Oktoberfest as a public event fueled by volunteers -- of which there are many -- the association has annually paid more than $25,000 to the Oktoberfest director, usually a member of its board. Funds generated by the many booths rented out by vendors was said to fund other Village events like Christmas in the Village, the Antique Street Faire and the Back to the '50s Car Shows. However, the Merchants association has been in varying states of stress in recent years and meeting its financial obligations has clearly been difficult.
The city has a firm rule against granting event permits to organizations that haven't paid the city's costs of earlier events. The city says the Merchants failed to pay $33,000 of what it owed for the last Oktoberfest. The Merchants have offered to escrow future payments to assure the city is paid in full, but it is not clear whether a pledge against next year's revenues for last year's bills will carry the day.
"Let's face it,'' said Jim Wieboldt, a former member of both the chamber board and the Merchants Association. "The Merchants Association is a defunct organization. It can't pay its bills. The Chamber paid its bill within days of the Oktoberfest. It is in good standing. Who do you think should be running Oktoberfest?''
Wieboldt, a frequent critic of the merchants group, said that organization hasn't held meetings in months and still lists a treasurer who has left town.
"This is what we warned about when we wanted a professional PBID executive,'' Wieboldt said, referring to the failed attempt to form a property-based management organization for the Village. "Art Madrid (the former mayor) predicted this would happen and now here it is.''
England said her board has not decided how to respond to recent events, but suggested the chamber remains open to partnering with the Merchants Association or "whoever else might apply to run Oktoberfest.''
England said her board had not discussed applying to take on the whole event itself and had not taken any lawsuit action against the Merchants at this point.
The irony, if that is the right word, is that Oktoberfest itself has remained a very popular event, bringing in thousands of visitors to discover La Mesa's quaint downtown. However the volatile mix of private business and public purpose has made the finances and management of the event a delicate balance.
When the city -- seeing large amounts of money move through the event each year -- suggested the organizers should pay for the security and public service costs the city was enduring, money got tighter, though not completely transparent. This year the merchants couldn't meet all the obligations and it is the city's bill that has gone unpaid.
Now the city manager will be asked to judge the solvency of the organizations applying for permits and that has brought up another irony. Former Mayor Art Madrid was swatted back last year -- including by chamber leadership -- when he suggested permit applicants be required to reveal their organization's solvency before being granted access to the city streets and facilities.