Town Council may look to Little Italy

Downtown neighborhood a model for La Jolla?

A field trip to Little Italy might be on the La Jolla Town Council’s horizon to see what the local community improvement district has accomplished.

Rick Wildman, incoming Town Council president, along with Trustees Debbie Dorsee and Glenn Rasmussen recently met with Marco Li Mandri to talk about how the downtown community has evolved with the support of merchants and residents.

Li Mandri is executive director of the Little Italy Association and owner of New City America, a company that contracts with the Little Italy group and more than 50 business and tourism districts around the country.

The three town council members are “looking toward a new arrangement” to support the merchants in La Jolla’s Village district that was previously served by Promote La Jolla, Wildman said last week. Since PLJ’s troubles began with a city audit a year ago, an interim La Jolla Business Improvement District managed by city officials and advised by Wildman, Rasmussen, Jennifer Clark and Daisy Fitzgerald has been working to fill the gap.

That solution is moving forward for 2011, Wildman noted, with a budget due to be considered by the City Council sometime in May. “They’re not moving along without us,” he added.

Meanwhile, he and others had suggested finding a way to help both merchants and residents throughout La Jolla — such as a maintenance assessment district or new business district. But he said last week the focus has come back to just the Village merchants.

Wildman said he will suggest at the next LJTC meeting on May 8 that trustees either visit Little Italy or invite Li Mandri to talk about the community’s successes. Whatever becomes of the idea, he noted, “is up to the whole community.”

Li Mandri on Friday called the existing business improvement district model, where businesses pay an assessment to cities, “antiquated,” noting that he believes maintenance assessment districts or community benefit districts are more effective.

A recent article in “Urban Land” published by the Urban Land Institute, quotes Li Mandri: “Benefits districts will increasingly take over more city services in the United States as parks, public spaces, and public right-of-way conditions deteriorate and deeper fiscal problems plague city governments.”

On Friday, he added, that security, maintenance and beautification — the area between one’s property and the curb — will need to be funded by nongovernmental entities.

Li Mandri was a student member of the La Jolla Town Council while attending UCSD. He urged whoever heads up the next-generation La Jolla group to get several bids, although he said there are only “a handful” of companies like his that do such work “and do it well.”

New City America, which has 11 staffers — eight of whom are in San Diego — works on a time-and-materials basis and charges an hourly rate, Li Mandri said.

His company and he have been the target of recent stories in The Reader tying him to FBI and San Diego police investigations into business improvement districts that he ran with Paul Mannino. He called the report “worthless,” adding, “It doesn’t mean anything.”

The Reader notes that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis “refused to prosecute.”

Wildman said he’s aware of the stories, which also reported that questions about possible conflicts of interest involving Li Mandri had been raised by “Scott Kessler, who has spent much of his life working with such districts.”

The Reader reported that Kessler, who headed the San Diego Business Improvement District Council, had concerns about Li Mandri’s activities with the North Bay Association.

According to The Reader, Kessler has filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination and retaliation involving the investigation and Li Mandri’s involvement with the mayor’s office. The case is pending.