There was no cutting the proverbial baby in half by the Santa Barbara City Council this Tuesday; it was more a case of jamming vinegar and baking soda into the same bottle and asking the contents not to explode. At issue were two rival business-improvement-district plans currently being proposed for the betterment of Milpas Street. While stated objectives are the same, the personal and political relationships between the two camps could not be more intensely fraught.
On the table Tuesday was a proposal hatched by the recently reborn Greater Eastside Merchants Association to create a business improvement district (BID) encompassing the 109 businesses located on both sides of Milpas Street between Ortega and Yanonali streets. According to Jacqueline Inda, who is midwifing the effort while also running for City Council, the new district would help “brand” that stretch of Milpas as a historically unique area. It would, she explained in an interview before the council meeting, be designed to promote additional foot traffic and shopping while preserving the mom-and-pop vibe of Latino-owned businesses. Many small-business owners — who reportedly closed their doors to attend — jammed the council pews, standing up in unison to express their support.
This proposal emerged in direct reaction against a more sweeping and expansive plan that was first unveiled last November by the Milpas Community Association (MCA). That proposal — dubbed “E-BID” — would run up Milpas Street from the waterfront to the Santa Barbara Bowl and also include much of the industrial yard zone between Milpas and the railroad tracks. The MCA proposal would include roughly 600 businesses and generate $160,000 in annual revenues. By contrast, the proposal before the council Tuesday — dubbed “M-BID” — would generate roughly $5,000 a year. Many councilmembers expressed skepticism that anything could be done with so small an amount. MCA executive Sharon Byrne noted that the Christmas-tree lights her group puts up every year cost $10,000.
For either of these BIDs ever to see light of day, a majority of the affected business owners must sign on the dotted line. But ultimately, the City Council has the last word. While no action was taken Tuesday, councilmembers made it abundantly clear they didn’t wish to be dragged into the ethnically tinged acrimony and political melodrama that’s marked relations between the rival camps. Nor did they believe Milpas Street was big enough to sustain two separate BIDs. The councilmembers instructed the two sides to go hash out their differences behind closed doors and, if possible, to come up with a unified plan. Mayor Helene Schneider said the competing camps shouldn’t come back before next January, and the rest of the council agreed.
The larger MCA proposal has already generated 160 signatures by affected business owners but, seven months into an arduous campaign, still needs about 270 more. Although supporters of the smaller BID have yet to begin collecting signatures of support, they claim they already have 80 in the pocket. Councilmembers also made it clear they didn’t want advocates from the smaller effort rushing their application because they have the votes. “Don’t put us in a position where we have to choose,” cautioned Councilmember Gregg Hart.
MCA’s Byrne, also running for City Council this November, stated she’d tried to conduct mediated talks with their critics several times but had been shined on or rebuffed. Byrne also said her group would not be able to make an August 3 BID summit, announced with great fanfare by the other side, because they just heard of it a day ago and many boardmembers would not be in town.