Local business owners fear anti-chain ordinance would worsen Ojai economy
By Nao Braverman
The tables are beginning to turn in Ojai’s discussion on chain stores, as a new lineup of public speakers, namely local property and business owners express their concerns at the City Hall podium.
Their collective fears about struggling local commerce, and the blighting effect of vacated businesses downtown, put some planning commissioners on the fence over whether the city should adopt a chain store related ordinance at all.
“I don’t like people reaching in and taking the potential profit we could make,” said Don Cluff, owner of the Oaks at Ojai spa at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting. Cluff was concerned that if his family ever needed to sell the business, it would be extremely difficult to get a proprietor that was not a chain to purchase such a large building as the Oaks. Most hotels nowadays are chains, he told the commission. If there was an ordinance in place that restricted chain businesses, he worried that it would make it very difficult for him to sell The Oaks if he needed to.
Elio Zarmati, owner of two small businesses, the Ojai Table of Contents bookstore and Feast Bistro, said he would welcome the competition of chains if they would fill the vacated buildings downtown.
“We are going to end up being a ghost town of boarded up stores,” he warned. “We don’t have the foot traffic we need in Ojai.” Zarmati said that he saw small businesses in Ojai dying and felt that something needed to be done to revitalize them.
Restricting chain stores however, was not the answer, according to Zarmati, as it might result in more empty storefronts, a sure sign of economic doom.
Ron Polito who said he turned down several chain businesses that showed interest in renting spaces in his newly redeveloped commercial center on Ojai Avenue, was not in favor of an ordinance that would restrict service chains.
“What if Kaiser Permanente wanted to open a clinic in the city?” he asked. “Would we want to turn them down? Polito also said that if the ordinance were to be made any stronger than currently proposed it would put his relationship with lenders in jeopardy.
Scott Eicher, chief executive officer of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce agreed.
“If construction lenders perceive Ojai as too restrictive toward business, they will not underwrite loans to build or remodel a business or building,” he cautioned. “Without these loans commercial property owners can’t make facility upgrades needed to keep pace with other destinations, or supply certain staples to our residents.”
Jim Exon, owner of nine properties in Ojai, wanted to know what the city would do if a corporate bowling alley wanted to come back to Ojai and fill one of the larger vacant lots.
Other business owners touted the foot traffic and healthy competition that chains could bring if set alongside privately owned shops in Ojai.
Meg Goodwin, owner of the Ojai House disagreed, however, telling commissioners that tourists would not come all the way to Ojai if it looked like another Burbank with chain stores on every corner. The vacated businesses were partly due to the rise in property values and increasing rents, she added.
The string of pleas were mostly opposing the crowd of public speakers who had attended the many previous city meetings in an effort to persuade decision makers to protect the community from proliferating chain stores.
Kenley Neufeld, author of the citizen’s initiative to regulate chain stores, said he was happy to hear from property owners but pointed out that they were probably the minority, because not everyone in town owns property.
Both sides agreed on one point. They did not want to restrict service chains, despite the city attorney’s warnings that such a distinction might not be legally defensible.
The planning commissioners in response to residents concerns, asked city staff to consider implementing a form-based code that would strengthen the cities already stringent building standards so that chain businesses might be allowed in, but would be required to conform with Ojai’s aesthetic style.
“Small-town character,” might be too vague, explained Commissioner Susan Weaver. More specific criteria such as specific height, architectural design and building material standards could help Ojai maintain its character without hindering its economy.
After hearing the property owner’s concerns Commissioner John Mirk said that he was ready to go return to his initial opinion, that the city might not need a chain store ordinance after all.
Commissioners readily agreed to invite the city council to their next planning meeting on Sept. 19 to have a combined commissioner-council member discussion on a chain store related ordinance. Commissioners strongly encouraged public speakers to attend.
In other planning news, the plans for an outdoor patio addition to Regals Wine & Spirits was approved with the condition that the owners return to the commission with an improved landscaping plan.
Joby Yobe and Jorge Alem, owners of the newly remodeled wine and liquor shop on 655 E. Ojai Ave. said that they plan to serve food in the back of the retail space that sells imported cheese, chocolate, and proscuttio ham as well as wine and spirits. Yobe said he hopes to sell salads, panini sandwiches and other appetizers in their indoor dining space before the end of the month. When the outdoor space is finished, the dining area will be extended to include a patio, he said.