To beautify and publicize: Promote La Jolla’s future is up in the air

After 20 years of using its fairly modest budget to beautify and publicize the Village of La Jolla, the business improvement district Promote La Jolla finds itself in the midst of a hotly-contested election that could shape its future.

Ballots for Promote La Jolla’s board of directors election are due Oct. 12, almost exactly 20 years after the group held its first meeting under the name La Jolla Business and Parking Improvement Committee. In the most crowded field in its history, 15 candidates are vying for eight open places on the 15-person board of directors, the contest split almost evenly between eight incumbents and seven newcomers. The seven new candidates are all running campaigns largely based on their opposition to paid on-street parking in La Jolla, which has been proposed as part of a comprehensive parking management plan by a local parking board that includes three Promote La Jolla members.

The outcome of the election could have a dramatic effect on the future of Promote La Jolla, which officially became a city-recognized business improvement district in 1992. A parking management plan that includes paid on-street parking could return hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to be administered by Promote La Jolla, which currently operates on a budget of less than $300,000.

Promote La Jolla’s leaders say that something must be done to turn around a Village that is falling behind other shopping areas in the region.

“Sales per square foot in UTC and Fashion Valley are twice what they are in the Village,” said Promote La Jolla executive director Tiffany Sherer. “It hasn’t always been that way, and we need to figure out a way to turn that around.”

Sherer, who is the only full-time staff member at Promote La Jolla, and Deborah Marengo, who leads the all-volunteer board of directors, say that the diminished appearance of Village streets and the perception that La Jolla is hard to access - partly because of a parking shortage - are the main reasons for the decline in foot traffic in sales. They say the Jewel has lost its shine and that parking revenues could help restore it by adding to the existing parking supply, possibly by constructing a garage, increasing street-sweeping efforts, improving the hanging flower baskets and other landscaping in the Village, and improving streetlight coverage.

For now, Promote La Jolla attempts to keep the shine on the Jewel using funds from assessment levels that were set when it was created in 1992, when a majority of La Jolla businesses voted to create a district and assess themselves a fee that Promote La Jolla would administer. Today an average of 1,400 businesses pay Promote La Jolla an annual assessment ranging from $350 for a big business like George’s California Modern to $45 for a small business, such as a real estate agent.

The $187,000 Promote La Jolla gains from assessments forms the bulk of its budget. In recent years, the group has used those fees to leverage additional grants from both private and public donors, which last year brought its budget up to $278,000.

“We basically now bring in 70 cents (in grants) for every dollar of assessment,” Marengo said. “Our goal in the next two years is to try to get it to double.”

Promote La Jolla spends those funds on some things that are familiar to La Jollans. They spend $15,000 annually to hang holiday decorations in the Village - and to store them for the rest of the year. Thousands more go towards street-cleaning and trash pick-up that is done every Saturday in addition to the city’s normal maintenance.

The group uses its promotions budget to try to reach out to people who are within driving distance of La Jolla - mainly those in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties as well as those in the Phoenix area. Promote La Jolla is in partnership with the San Diego Conventions and Visitors Bureau in placing “geo-targeted” ads in national magazines in those regions.

In addition to doing all they can to increase foot traffic, Promote La Jolla has a partnership with the city’s development services department to help new small businesses in La Jolla get necessary permits. The group created a public right-of-way enhancement program last year that, among other things, allows restaurants to set up regulated sidewalk dining areas. Five businesses are currently participating, including The Burger Lounge, which is thriving in a very small location on the corner of Wall Street and Herschel Avenue thanks to its sidewalk dining tables.

They will soon unveil new, $10,000 newsracks that they hope will improve the appearance of the Village streetscape.

Promote La Jolla’s duties can also include “matchmaker,” with those efforts so far unsuccessful with regard to the vacant Sak’s building on Wall Street. Despite several meetings, a disagreement between the property owner and lease holder over the number of tenants at the building and the distribution of the revenue remains unresolved.

Now the group will see how its members feel about parking. Marengo said that most of the opposition to paid on-street parking has resulted from misinformation about the exact nature of the plan.

“The members that do look at the plan, who sit down to talk about the plan or want more information, they say to us, ‘This plan makes sense,’ ” Marengo said.

Glen Rasmussen, a La Jolla attorney who is among the new candidates running on a position in opposition to paid on-street parking, disagreed.

“I’m a member and they haven’t asked me what I think about parking,” he said. “I believe the majority of the members do not support it, and yet they’re moving ahead with it full steam.”

The will of the La Jolla business community will soon be known, as the results of the election will be announced at Promote La Jolla’s November meeting, to be held Nov. 14 at 3 p.m. at La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect St. All Promote La Jolla board meetings are open to the public.