Primo Boxing: Down but Not Out
Owners Keep Chins Up After Losing Lease with City
Armed with the confidence you might see in a boxer getting ready for a championship bout, Joe and Jean Pommier are moving Primo Boxing out of its home of the past 18 years — an old fire station on East Haley Street.
Where they go is anyone’s guess. But because of a variety of cuts to their funding over the last several years, the Pommiers have fallen more and more behind on rent payments, leaving the city no choice but to terminate Primo’s lease.
Primo has served as an after-school escape six days a week for young people looking for something to do. The club works with anyone who enters its doors — from teenage boys and girls looking to learn how to box, to men in their early twenties who want a workout, to children just eager for a place to hang out and do homework. Most of the kids come from poor families, and the program is highly lauded across all circles in Santa Barbara.
The Pommiers dedicated their lives to Primo and have run the club on a meager budget for years: To cover wages, benefits, insurance, utilities, rent, maintenance, supplies, and gas for their van, the couple needs a mere $82,000 for the year. But civic and federal grants dried up, a popular fundraiser at UCSB that raised more than $10,000 every year was halted, and Joe and Jean were left wondering how they were going to pay the bills.
They weren’t able to, unfortunately, as over the last several years Primo has accrued thousands of dollars in delinquent rent. In 2009, the city cut Primo’s rent in half to $10,000 a year while also forgiving $34,000 in accrued nonpayments with the understanding Primo would take steps to improve its situation, said Nancy Rapp, Parks & Recreation director.
But despite their best efforts under the circumstances, Joe and Jean couldn’t turn it around, and the city — even with a respect and appreciation for the good work Primo does — is terminating the lease, meaning the boxing club must be out of its current location by October 10.
The Pommiers have already begun packing up some of their equipment and putting it in storage.
The Parks & Recreation Department, under its own financial strain because of budget cuts — the department has lost roughly one-third of its General Fund contribution over the last few years — budgeted the rent revenue, so when it didn’t come in from Primo, they had to make cuts elsewhere. “Any revenue we don’t make we have to reduce expenditures, which means less services we can provide,” Rapp said.
But despite the poor news, there is reason for hope. A recent cover story in The Independent caught the attention of several people, and news of Primo’s troubles has been making its way through the wide community of people Joe and Jean have touched over the years. And the couple remains hopeful the outpouring of support will lead Primo to a new home.
They’ve received donations from people from all over — a guy in Palo Alto gave some money, a woman pitched in another $100, the Fund for Santa Barbara gave $10,000, while many more have come forward offering their time and talents. One man expressed interest in starting up Fight Night — the successful UCSB fundraiser held every year — again. They’ve been in touch with real estate agents helping them search for new facilities. “We don’t need anything beautiful; we just need space,” said Jean.
One man, Paul Feller, president of Stratus Media Group (which owns 140 companies or events around the world), had never heard of Primo Boxing prior to The Independent’s July cover story. But the Pommiers’s story struck a chord, and he called quickly to see what he could do and shortly thereafter toured their facilities.
But first things first. Feller heard that the funding shortage was going to make the Pommiers cancel an annual camping trip intended to reward the 20-30 kids who help out with the food stand Primo sets up every year at Fiesta. They needed less than $1,000 to take all the kids on the trip, but didn’t have the money to do so. “I almost fell over at the little amount they needed,” Feller said. “I gladly wrote out that check.”
Now, Stratus is working with the Pommiers to finalize an agreement to have the group finance Primo over a period of time. Feller has been just the latest of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Santa Barbarans to have been inspired by the Pommiers over the last two decades. “These two people have dedicated 18 years of their lives to help their community,” said Feller, who is already involved in several nonprofits around town. “I’m very impressed what they’ve done with what they have.”
So while they might not have a building for much longer, the Pommiers are anxiously awaiting news on a potential new facility. Regardless, what they do have are hearts dedicated to helping steer young people in the right direction. Primo is more than a building, and wherever Joe and Jean end up, they don’t plan on ceasing their contribution to the community. “Joe will teach the kids on the beach if he has to,” Jean said.
The couple plans to throw a potluck barbecue to say goodbye to 701 East Haley Street on Saturday, October 1, at 1 p.m. For more information on how to help, call 455-2331.