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Merchant Group Plans Changes Amid Squabble

Downtown Santa Ana's immigrant customers are backdrop in a debate over the area's future.

May 26, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

A Santa Ana business owners group, which uses merchant money for improvements and promotions, has decided to remake itself amid internal squabbling over the future of the city's busiest shopping blocks.

The 600-member Downtown Santa Ana Business Assn., which administers a municipal business improvement district that promotes events and does some street repairs, also voted last week to reduce merchants' assessments by 20%.

The plan, including restructuring, must be approved by the City Council.

The actions come at a time when the merchants continue to disagree about the future of downtown, which has an abundance of bridal shops, check-cashing operations, jewelry stores and travel agents, along with an up-and-coming Artists Village of lofts, galleries and shops.

Matt Lamb, the city's downtown development manager, said the association's restructuring isn't related to disagreements among the merchants but is intended to create a way for them to get involved in projects that most interest them.

"This is a way for us to get more focused and get more done," he said. Instead of having a 20-member board, the association will have four nonprofit groups: an advisory board, an events committee, a marketing committee and a security-and-maintenance committee.

Board member Manuel Pena said that no matter the structure, the board will be ineffective if its members don't share a vision.

"If you do not have the cooperation of all the member merchants, it won't work," said Pena, who voted against restructuring. "You have [some] merchants who feel threatened. What they see makes them nervous and you can't get them to work with this group until they are made to feel part of it."

Some merchants fear that the city officials and their supporters want the Artists Village to expand and replace immigrant-oriented businesses that are the mainstay of the commercial hub around Fourth and Main streets. Those merchants argue that the artists contribute little financially to the association, yet the association's marketing efforts mostly promote them, not the businesses.

Wednesday's vote on restructuring was 10-7, with one abstention. Two positions are vacant.

The association president, Arturo Lomeli, and vice president, Teresa Saldivar, could not be reached for comment. Previously, Lomeli has said the concerned merchants wanted to limit their downtown constituency to Spanish-speaking immigrants while he and others do not.

In September, merchants engaged a county mediator to help resolve deep-seated differences over public relations and advertising campaigns.

The Downtown Santa Ana Business Assn. has cut back on advertising in Spanish-language newspapers and radio, instead directing the group's dues to improvements such as lighting and landscaping, and cleaning sidewalks and benches. Business owners with mostly Latino clienteles say they depend on the advertising to survive.

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