Our Town

Slices of Santa Barbara life

Santa Maria Does 180 On Fallas

Council approves discount retailer to occupy prime space at Town Center West.

By Sam Slovick

Coming soon. (Photo taken from 1031comex.com)

A group of well-behaved skateboarders cool their wheels on hard benches just outside City Hall’s council chambers on Cook Street in Santa Maria. The skaters, part of a group of 28 youth, are representing Victory Outreach International church. They are here at the August 6 Santa Maria City Council meeting with Pastor Mike Coleman, who skillfully manages to get to the mic first during the public comment session. Coleman is eager to promote an upcoming, biblically tinged play called Sandman that the church youth will be performing at Santa Maria High School. The pastor is also here to discuss a building the church has in escrow and hopes to turn into a youth center.

“We love our city a lot and want to help people,” Coleman tells the full house to much applause before plugging Sandman, which features musical performances by the Delfonics’ Norman Carter and someone named M.C. BLVD.

Coleman informed the council and the public that the Victory Outreach International drama team was in the house. “Tonight we come to invite the city council, and you, mayor, we’d love to have you in attendance. If you could speak at this event, it would be a tremendous blessing to us and to our community. We’re looking at having 700 people there.”

When his three minutes were up, the pastor promptly retreated to the hallway, where he leads his charges in a prayer circle.

Pastor Coleman’s prayer wasn’t the first of the evening. Pastor Paul Berry from the Calvary Chapel opened the city council meeting by petitioning the Lord to grant wisdom to all department heads. Berry then expressed his personal gratitude at being a member of “an all-American city,” referencing a distinction bestowed upon Santa Maria by the National Civic League in 1994.

Sandman aside, the issue weighing most heavily on the assembled was the disposition of National Stores, Inc.’s permit application to put a Fallas Discount Store in the former Mervyn’s building downtown.

Flyer promoting Victory Outreach International's Sandman play.

Flyer promoting Victory Outreach International's Sandman play.

But before the city council could open discussion on whether or not a city already hosting 41 bargain-basement stores should welcome what would be the largest in the Fallas chain into Santa Maria, they would hear one more invocation.

Resident Mark Rademaker prayed for Gov. Jerry Brown to not sign the gender-identity measure approved in July by the California Legislature that would allow transgender-identifying youths to choose sports and bathroom assignments according to their wishes rather than their assigned sex at birth. Rademaker described the measure as “flat-out evil!” and then thanked Jesus, concluding that “we are all created by God.” Brown would sign the measure into law a few days later despite Rademaker’s entreaty.

While Santa Maria is eager for sales-tax revenues that would come with a major new retail tenant in the downtown core, the city council voted 3-2 in June to instruct staff to prepare findings to deny National Stores’ bid to occupy the 86,000-square-foot building at 201 Town Center West. National Stores bought the building in March and claims it has already put $4 million into upgrading the property.

Among concerns voiced during public comment was whether Fallas could meet the goals laid out by the Downtown Specific Plan—adopted in 2008 and amended in 2009—which focuses on the revitalization and beautification of the downtown core. The Town Center West and Town Center East malls, connected by a pedestrian bridge, have long been seen as key elements of a vibrant commercial core—a dream that has been struggling to take hold. Concerns leading to June’s denial include disappointment with Fallas Discount Stores’ shabby reputation and doubts about the chain’s ability to serve as a retail anchor and regional shopping hub.

Nancy Stuart, who lives on Main Street, is one of the doubters. Stuart made it clear that while she believes in free enterprise, she thinks approving the Fallas bid would be contrary to “all the business studies, surveys and dollars spent to encourage a certain type of growth” in Santa Maria. More specifically, Stuart says, Fallas “doesn’t care how their stores look and smell.” Nor does she believe the hype that Fallas will bring new jobs, insisting instead that the store would be merely “reshuffling old ones.”

Stuart went on to say that the people she talked to who were employed by Fallas worked part time without benefits.

Stuart wasn’t alone in her view that the downtown area didn’t need more discount stores and that approving Fallas would be a “detraction from our dream.” Santa Maria resident Karen Cordary added that “it makes me sad that they’d put a discount store in the center of town. It’s just wrong.”

Fallas came prepared to defend its honor, parading ringers in front of councilmembers. Kimberly Torres, employed at a nearby Fallas Discount Store for three years, said she “loves working there” and that there are “lots of jobs and opportunities.” Darcy Rosales, a four-year Fallas veteran, said she’s seen “nothing but improvement” when it comes to Fallas’ cleanliness and “believes they’d be a great addition to the city.”

Henry Ciddio, assistant manager at Santa Maria’s Factory 2-U, a retail outlet also owned by National Stores, said he “feels blessed for [his] position.” Ciddio said his job’s salary and benefits are good enough to allow his wife to stay home and tend to his autistic son and “health-challenged daughter.”

Two-year Fallas employee Maria Gonzales added, “I used to work in the fields. I can work the whole year [at Fallas] and afford my daughter’s college.”

What do we want our city to be?

Self-proclaimed capitalist and real estate broker Lawnae Hunter used the occasion to lobby for a bigger-picture outlook. She told the city council she is a proponent of “out-of-the-box thinking” and suggested creating living-wage jobs in Santa Maria, affordable housing, a four-year university and the development of a “business-friendly” persona. Hunter suggested that “we step back and ask, what do we want our city to be?”

It’s unclear whether councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Orach took Allen’s ideas to heart. He did make it clear, though, that despite being unable to find what he was looking for during a recent tour of Fallas stores—“something 21 and blond”—he was sure the proposed Santa Maria Fallas store would be a AAA Flagship location.

National Stores’ Chief Financial Officer Sandra Menichelli assured councilmembers and the public that Fallas would abide by the Downtown Specific Plan by keeping the store well maintained and attracting regional customers. The company also committed $50,000 to upgrade the adjacent parking lot. More to the point, perhaps, lawyers for the retail giant had been threatening legal action if the city continued to deny the occupancy permit for Fallas, which is expected to employ 40 to 80 people and generate $50,000 per year in tax revenues.

Eventually, the city council decided that having Fallas was better than having 86,000 square feet of nothing, or at least better than a drawn-out legal battle over the vacant site. It voted 4-1 to approve the permit, reversing its June decision.

Whatever its reasons, the occupancy approval would seem to contradict the Downtown Specific Plan’s goal of encouraging the upgrading and revitalization of existing commercial areas, contradictions noted in staff reports addressing the possible downgrading of the premier regional retail property as well as concerns voiced by neighboring merchants. Fallas will bring the total of Santa Maria discount stores to 42.

Mayor Alice Patino cast the lone dissenting vote. “Fallas will not be a regional draw by any stretch,” she said. In an interview with KCOY News the day after the vote, she added, “What they we’re trying to sell us last night at the meeting was not what I saw at those stores.”

Fallas is expected to open within two months.

“We’re thrilled,” said Menichelli.

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