San Diego If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if you yourself are broke, only fix things that are draining you financially -- not things that are filling your coffers.
It seems basic. But the State of California doesn't get it. It wants to jettison its most remunerative concessionaire, Old Town's Bazaar del Mundo, and gamble on a company from Buffalo, New York, with very little experience in the kind of urban restoration it promises.
Old Town restaurants and retailers are nervous because the state's Department of Parks and Recreation is batting .000 in granting Old Town concessions to large companies. Beginning in 1990, it destroyed Squibob Square, then a thriving mixture of mom-and-pop stores in the southwest corner of Old Town, by granting its concessions to two corporations that flopped.
Last year, Parks and Rec granted the Bazaar del Mundo concession contract to Delaware North, a $1.6 billion company that specializes in sports stadium food, state and national park services, and gambling. As related in an April 29 column, Delaware North had shady associations under a prior name.
The losing bidder was Diane Powers, who'd had the concession for 32 years and had singlehandedly lifted Old Town from seedy stores to thriving establishments attracting more than six million visitors a year, tops in the county by far.
Since mid-month, Powers has been battling the state and Delaware North in a hearing before an administrative law judge in Sacramento. A decision should come in July, but the state can ignore it. Delaware North got the nod because its proposal was purportedly more historically authentic and promised modestly higher rent payments and capital improvements.
The state's own information tells the story. Restaurant and retail sales in Bazaar del Mundo rose 4.3 percent a year between 1998 and 2002. That is sensational for those years. Nationally, tourism was devastated by 9/11. "But between 9/11 and now, Diane Powers's sales went from $23 million to just under $27 million. Airlines and hotels would love such numbers," says Barney Scott, a former lecturer in tourism management at San Diego State and a cofounder of Friends of Old Town.
The state admits that it has raked in prodigious sums from Powers. But it had this 25-year plan for Old Town back in 1977. It was to be made authentic: plants, flowers, grass, and trees would be replaced by a windswept, sunbaked, muddy square. Bazaar del Mundo and Squibob Square would be razed because they didn't exist back in 1871-1872.
Obviously, such goofiness met resistance, and there were compromises along the way, but the state still has a hang-up on historical authenticity -- or its own narrow vision of authenticity. So, last year, when the concession was up for renewal, the panel to review the bids was packed with people obsessed with historical accuracy. But if you really want authenticity, you would import a million fleas, bring in hundreds of spittoons, and hand out free "chawin' terbacky."
Among several things, Delaware North proposes to replace the Casa de Bandini Restaurant and restore the Cosmopolitan Hotel. There will be a Jolly Boy Saloon and Restaurant, replete with antique pool table. Restaurants will serve American fare (sometimes with French names), as well as Mexican food. Existing landscaping will be removed -- to the horror of critics -- and replaced with mature vegetation "consistent with the historical period," says Delaware North. But "rather than attempting to reproduce the somewhat barren look of the 19th Century, the new plantings will reflect the way the grounds would have looked if early San Diego had numbered a landscape gardener among its citizens." The 1977 idiocy has been curbed somewhat.
"We plan to redo all the stores in Bazaar del Mundo -- we'll have a Mexican bakery, high-quality jewelry, clothing, Western wear, pottery, in brand-new, renovated stores," says Bruce Fears, president of Delaware North Parks and Resorts.
"Diane Powers runs a wonderful operation, but it is not authentic in any way," says Bruce D. Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation. The state wants a "Williamsburg of the West, and it's not." Delaware North pays strict attention to San Diego history, insists Coons.
But here's a very big caveat: Coons admits to being a paid consultant to Delaware North. Similarly, architect Wayne Donaldson consulted for Delaware North. Recently he left his firm to take a post at a fat salary with Parks and Rec. And Delaware North has the contract to run a facility near Monterey that state parks officials use for meetings and training. However, Fears insists there is no incestuousness nor conflict of interest. Nor should there be arched eyebrows over the $320,000 Delaware North spent on lobbying in Sacramento from 2001 to the present, he says.
Critics say that the state has a very narrow view of historical authenticity. Old Town's history stretches from 1821 to 1872, when fire devastated it. Until 1848, it was a Mexican settlement. After 1848, when the U.S. won the Mexican War, Americans were in charge. "But it was still a Mexican pueblo. The American flag hung, but there was no Western town in Old Town. The idea that Mexican families left, and all of a sudden there were people walking up and down the street in chaps, is ridiculous," says Karen Spring, publisher of the Old Town-based Old California Gazette.
"The state is focusing on a narrow period of 20 years" under American rule, says Bruce W. Bennett, another cofounder of Friends of Old Town. "There are different layers of influence -- Native Americans, Mexicans, Americans."
Indeed, if authenticity is critical, "My family's adobe is beneath the Bazaar del Mundo and Jolly Boy Saloon," says Abel Silvas, whose family has been in San Diego since 1769 and founded Old Town. "If Delaware North really wants authenticity, it can reconstruct the seven homes underneath the Bazaar del Mundo."
Bennett says that Delaware North does not have experience with urban historical renovation and also specializes in closed concessions (such as a ballpark, where people can't go outside to get a competing beverage). Fears says his company has done historical restorations in nonurban areas, "and there is no difference in urban settings." And there is competition among vendors in airports, sports facilities, and the like, he says.
The Old Town Chamber of Commerce testified strongly against the Delaware North proposal at the Sacramento hearing. Most retailers I talked with want Bazaar del Mundo and Diane Powers to stay. "If a big company comes in, we will lose the décor and atmosphere -- it will be another shopping mall," says Portia Clayton, assistant manager of Miranda's Courtyard.
If Delaware North puts less emphasis on Mexican food, "We would generate more business," says Matt Lizalde, manager of the Old Town Mexican Café. But he is wary of "a Wal-Mart kind of feel."
Such fears reflect the Squibob Square disaster, which began in 1990. "For 20 years, there were 17 mom-and-pops," says Spring. Then the state put the contract up for bid, and Host International, a subsidiary of Marriott Services, promising fatter returns and more capital spending, got the contract. "They came in with airport fare, souvenir stuff -- it fell flat on its face," as did an Arizona company that came later and changed the name to Dodson's Corner. Now there are only two retailers there. And the state doesn't have the money it was promised.
But the old mentality remains: "It's easier for the state to collect money from just one company, rather than deal with a number of concessionaires," says Eve Ewing, another cofounder of Friends of Old Town.
Powers does have problems with some in the Mexican community. Silvas says he would prefer Delaware North if it would restore a Mexican adobe and stress Mexican history. The editor of La Prensa supports Delaware North, complaining, like Silva, that Powers has not been very supportive of the Hispanic community.
Spring says that to get its feet wet, Delaware North should take over the old Squibob Square and set up its Western town. If it succeeds, it could then compete with Powers for the whole enchilada. But that would make too much sense for a bureaucracy.