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Crazy Vinnie Sells Cars -- in School Lot

Times are tight, so San Clemente High rents out space. After gripes, the 'circus' is toned down.

August 15, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Crazy Vinnie needed a place to sell used cars. San Clemente High School Principal Charles Hinman needed money for freshman support programs and wasn't about to ask his cash-strapped district for help.

In an unlikely matchup that has roiled some residents in the beachfront town and has others praising the school for its creativity, San Clemente High is renting out its parking lot this weekend for the second time to a used-car dealer, netting $7,500 for the campus with one four-day event two weeks before school starts.

After the first sale at the end of June, Hinman refused to allow another after a slew of angry residents called to protest.

Then Crazy Vinnie, more formally known as Vincent Sanchez, CEO of Lake Elsinore-based VSPI Inc., upped the price from $5,000.

Hinman acquiesced, but city officials placed several restrictions on the company's promotional tactics.

During the first sale, blimps floated in the sky, balloons arched over the school gates, and sign-holders hawked the event from street corners around town.

"It made for good eyeball," recalled Michael Korich, VSPI's marketing director. "I could go somewhere else and not have any of this hassle. But I look at the location and I look at what this is doing for the school, and I don't want to do that." The campus is on Avenida Pico just east of Interstate 5.

During this second event, which began Thursday and ends Sunday, there are no balloons and just two signs. A truck towing a billboard proclaiming "Giant Used Car Sale at San Clemente H.S." tooled through town, the driver drawing attention by playing electronic jingles -- a rousing fanfare alternating with "The Pink Panther" theme -- over a loudspeaker.

Nancy Ingham was dropping off paperwork for her daughter, a senior at San Clemente, Thursday morning and decided to browse for a car for the girl. As Ingham wandered the sun-baked lot, a red 1999 Ford Explorer and a black 2000 Volkswagen Golf caught her eye among the 300 gleaming cars.

"I wish they did more things like this to put the parking lot to good use, especially if the school's going to benefit," she said. Still, she's glad the atmosphere was toned down.

"It was out of hand," she said. "This is much better, more in keeping with the neighborhood."

City officials were not informed in advance of the first sale and received a flood of phone calls protesting the signs and nighttime lighting, said Mayor Stephanie Dorey.

"Residents were totally unprepared for this circus," she said.

The closest thing San Clemente has had to a used-car sale has been antique car shows on the pier, Dorey said. "You can only do so many big things like this used-car sale before you start to affect a small-town atmosphere," she said.

Even with the scaled-back promotion, some neighbors have complained. By 10:30 Thursday morning, Hinman had messages from two residents of the gated bluff-top community across the street, wanting to know who approved the event and where the money was going. "Those are fair questions, but I can almost guarantee you that when they hear the answers, they'll understand why we're doing this," Hinman said.

Because schools everywhere have to cut back, Hinman said, "desperate times call for desperate measures."

His district, Capistrano Unified, had to trim its $220-million budget about 10% because of statewide cuts.

But Hinman wanted to implement a raft of new programs aimed at helping freshmen before they stray too far from the path toward graduation. That initiative will cost $70,000 for staffing to supervise mentor services for freshmen as well as advising and tutorials for students with failing grades.

To cover the program's cost, Hinman will supplement the car-sale income with some of the school's discretionary money, including state funds that came in as a reward for improved test scores.

Hinman said he'd consider renting out the lot during the winter and spring breaks. Other ways he hopes to generate money are appeals sent to every San Clemente address and hiring a fund-raising consultant to dream up more money-making ideas.

Korich said the San Clemente site is ideal -- freeway-close, on a main thoroughfare -- but added that the first sale didn't make a profit. Not that the sales' success matters to Hinman.

"I couldn't care less if they do well or not at this location," the principal said. "All that matters is he's giving me money for our kids."

The mayor said the toning-down of the garish displays to appease residents enabled her to tolerate the event, especially knowing it's for a good cause.

"I'm not saying I like the idea of them having that right there," Dorey said, "but I understand they need the money."

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