La Jolla Merchants group elects new officers, preps for strategic planning session

By Pat Sherman

The La Jolla Village Merchants Association (LJVMA) elected three new officers during its monthly meeting, Nov. 13 at the Couvier Club. Most notably, Phil Coller passed his president’s gavel to architect Claude-Anthony Marengo, who joined the LJVMA board in October.

Marengo, who was nominated by board member Claudette Berwin, said he threw his hat in the ring to continue some of the positive action started during Coller’s three terms as president, adding that he’s “willing to push harder” and work with City Hall to get the Cove odor problem solved “right away.” “Phil really was a great inspiration during all that,” Marengo said.

Marengo is the husband of former Promote La Jolla President Deborah Marengo (forerunner to the La Jolla Village Merchants Association), which disbanded in 2009 after an investigation by the city attorney’s office over dispersal of its funds. The report stated that $112,070 was at issue, including $65,323 — money that Promote La Jolla had held in trust to assist employers with parking for their workers — that was taken by First Republic Bank from a Promote La Jolla bank account to cover an overdue line of credit.

Coller offered some sobering words for new officers and board members about the commitment required to return neglected aspects of La Jolla to their former glory.

“La Jolla is dying — I mean that literally,” he said. “It has no flesh on the bones. … Whoever is on this board and stands for an officer position, has to make a really big commitment and try to drag other people into being involved.”

Attorney Mark Krasner, who joined LJVMA in 2012, was elected vice-president (taking the reins from Nancy Warwick), while new board member Justin Stewart, a client services manager for Opus Bank, was elected treasurer (taking over for Tom Brady). Krista Baroudi will remain board secretary.

Finances:

LJVMA is completing an audit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013, which should be finished and available for review in the next 60 days, Brady said.

LJVMA Executive Director Sheila Fortune noted that the association is in the process of receiving roughly $52,000 in back grant money it was expecting from various agencies within the City of San Diego. The delayed grant money, and a shortage of projected ad revenue from the Information Center, contributed to the organization’s current cash-flow shortage, sending it temporarily into arrears on its rent.

Fortune said she secured much of the delayed grant money with assistance from the city’s new business improvement district (BID) advocate, Liz Studebaker.

“She’s helped quite a bit in the last six weeks or so to find a lot of this money, get it released, and find out why it was delayed,” Fortune said.

The LJVMA has a contract to manage a portion of business taxes funneled through the city for improvement projects within the La Jolla BID. There are currently about 1,260 businesses within La Jolla’s BID.

BID assessments in La Jolla are projected to be about $145,000 this year, Fortune said. “We have to make quite a bit more to run the Information Center, to do our website and staff the Information Center,” she said.

Coller said LJVMA is free to “raise funds by any other means — and it does … which it can use as it sees fit.” However, when spending BID money, LJVMA must follow strict rules established by the city and state, he noted.

Further cost-cutting:

Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty is now subleasing the rear portion of the LJVMA’s Information Center on Prospect Street for $6,500 a month. In addition, the Information Center is closed on Mondays through winter. Both measures are expected to help the association regain financial footing.

Meanwhile, Fortune and another LJVMA staff member have relocated from the Information Center to more modest office space at 1246 Roslyn Lane, which the association is renting monthly in exchange for advertising in the Information Center.

“We should be able to catch things up; we’ve put a little conservative spin (on operations),” Fortune said, adding that she will provide a revised budget for board members’ approval during the LJVMA’s strategic planning session (which replaces LJVMA’s December meeting).

Marengo promised to present additional cost-cutting and revenue-generating ideas during the strategic session, such as pursuing community development block grants, which he said may be easier to obtain.

The strategic planning session will be 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Couvier Club, 7776 Eads Ave. Coller said it is vital for La Jolla business owners to attend and offer their feedback on the association’s “preferred agenda” for the coming year.

Odor issue:

Representatives from the office of Interim Mayor Todd Gloria and District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner briefed the LJVMA on their efforts to rid the Cove of its pervasive stench — which, this time, the city says, is coming from sea lion excrement at La Jolla Cove.

Merchants are pushing for the city to remove a fence above the Cove that was installed about a decade ago, or at least install a gate in it to allow public access.  Stacey LoMedico, the city’s new assistant chief operating officer, is expected to issue a decision in the matter this week, pending legal review by the city attorney’s office.

“For years we had sea lions in La Jolla, but people had access to those cliffs and they weren’t actually colonizing and living on those rocks,” board member Krista Baroudi said. “Now, no one bothers them, they’re there round the clock and you’re getting that odor.”

Lightner’s Communications Director Jill Esterbrooks said Lightner “definitely supports (granting) access to that area.”

“We’ll be working closely with the mayor’s office and city staff to do that,” she assured. “Lightner) also is supportive of treating the cliffs, both before and after the nesting and pupping seasons. So, they’ll be some additional cleanups … but long-term we need a coastal management plan, so that’s what she’ll be looking at.”

Though Marengo commended Lightner’s office for working with the former mayor to get the cleanup started, he said he feels the city is sliding backward on the issue.

“Whereas Mayor Gloria’s office is trying to gear up (on this issue),” he said, “(Lightner’s) office has an advantage, and it needs to pick up where it left off and push forward. I’ve seen a little bit more effort from Gloria’s office than I’m seeing from our own council district, with all due respect.”

Though a recent letter to the LJVMA and other community stakeholders issued by LoMedico assured that the public is already permitted to walk onto the cliffs (as long as no one is harassing wildlife), Coller noted, “Lifeguards and police can ask people to leave, or ask people to restrain what they’re doing.”

Baroudi asked if walking onto the cliffs with a camera could be perceived harassment.

“It is a fine line, and I’m not going to be the one to define it,” said Alex Roth, a representative from the office of Interim Mayor Gloria. “It’s going to be up to the lifeguards, based on their own professional judgment under these various statutes … but I can tell you, just as that letter makes clear, the simple act of hopping that fence and being on those cliffs is not in and of itself (a violation).”

Coller suggested that lifeguards monitoring the beach and cliffs be made “fully aware” of the statutes and provisions related to public access on the bluffs.

“They are absolutely aware,” Roth assured. “They’ve been involved in all these meetings. … They were (updated) during every step of this process and they’ve seen drafts of this letter.”

LJVMA events:

During December’s strategic planning session, the board will also discuss ways to ramp up merchant participation in association-sponsored events, such as its Pillage the Village Halloween trick-or-treating (produced jointly with the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’ Association); its Haute La Jolla Nights music, dinning and shopping events; the La Jolla Historical Society’s annual Concours d’Elegance auto show (April 11-13, 2014), and the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Jan. 23-26 in La Jolla. (Tiger Woods is confirmed to play in 2014’s tourney, Coller said.)

Board members Billy Borja and Claudette Berwin said the LJVMA should use the Farmers Open, which brings more than 110,000 people to San Diego, to apply “tremendous pressure” to city officials in regard to the Cove odor.

Fortune said three years ago when LJVMA formed from the ashes of Promote La Jolla (which formerly managed La Jolla’s BID money), the association didn’t have the manpower and cohesiveness to form its own events.

“We allowed everyone else to do the events that we used to do,” she said. “Now they’re driving them and we don’t have anything, so we’re having to create our own events to create synergy and a name for ourselves.”

Despite this month’s Haute La Jolla Nights event being canceled due to low turnout and dwindling sponsorship, board member James Niebling voiced support for continuing the monthly summer and fall street jams, comparing them to successful community-building events elsewhere in San Diego, such as North Park’s Ray at Night art walk and Little Italy’s Kettner Nights.

“I think if we’re looking to hang our hat on something, Pillage the Village is great, but this is an opportunity for us to do something throughout the summer and we can extend it into the holiday time,” Niebling said, offering to assist with the Haute Nights moving forward.

“I believe in it that much,” he said. “It may not bring (money) to the registers that evening, but I think it creates awareness … and is really important for our community.”

Business reopening:

Niebling’s interior design business, Esteban Interiors, 7605 Girard Ave., is scheduled to reopen this week after months of renovation. Niebling said he replaced a dying sycamore in front of his store with a cassia tree, the cost of which he said his landlord is deducting from his rent.

“If you’re able to fund some improvement in front of your store, albeit small, there’s a possibility that your landlord would be willing to contribute to that,” Niebling said, adding that he would serve as a consultant for merchants seeking similar beautification concessions.

“Whatever each individual business can do on a small basis could make a huge difference,” he said.

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