Friday, August 31, 2007

Paso Robles Car show won’t cruise through Paso next year

By Leah Etling

The West Coast Kustoms Cruisin’ Nationals car show, which has been an annual event in Paso Robles for nearly three decades, will not come back to the city in 2008, organizers said this week.

The decision to move the show to Santa Maria on Memorial Day weekend came after the city requested that the organizers pay $35,000 for policing of the show and cut the number of vehicles involved from 800 to 500.

Police Chief Lisa Solomon said the city asked for the funds to help control crowds, gang problems and violent crimes—all of which were issues during last year’s event.

“It was just a ridiculous weekend,” Solomon said. An estimated 27,000 people came to town for the three-day event.

Solomon said her department responded to 153 calls related to the show. Officers responded to five assaults with deadly weapons, including a gang-related shooting. Police also responded to fights, domestic violence, and numerous alcohol consumption violations. In 2006, there were 119 police calls.

Some local business owners, upset about the show’s departure, plan to attend Tuesday night’s City Council meeting to complain.

A replacement event to fill the void is a possibility, but no decision has been made. Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce president Mike Gibson said talk of a new magnet event for Memorial Day weekend is just rumor.

Security concerns

Paso Robles police had a tougher time dealing with calls during the three-day car show than during the 12-day California Mid-State Fair, Solomon said. With more than 360,000 people attending the fair this year, there were more people in town on any day of the fair than during the car show.

In response to last year’s car show problems, the city developed ways to better control event-related incidents, such as the $35,000 fee. They invited Kustoms Cruisin’ organizers to come up with ideas to reduce crime so the event could stay.

In a letter to her supporters, show founder Penny Pichette called the city’s concerns “realistic and valid” but said she could not afford to pay for additional policing.

“I don’t make $35,000, and then they want me to cut down to 500 cars,” she said.

Next year’s event will be held at the Santa Maria Fair-park, which can accommodate more cars. Space restraints in Paso Robles limited the show to 800 entrants.

Councilman Gary Nemeth said that the city spent about $47,000 to host the show. The fee paid by the car club was $1,500.

“It was their choice,” Nemeth said of the club’s decision to go elsewhere. “The city was willing to dialogue with them.”

Pichette said Santa Maria made no demands on her.

“I just feel so sad, but there’s no turning back,” she said.

Long history

The show was first held at Nacimiento Lake in 1982. Pichette and her late husband, Rich, were inspired by a drive along the route traveled by James Dean the day he died, during which they visited Paso Robles.

“When there was nothing in Paso, we were there. It was our town too. Even though we didn’t live there, we did business there, and had many friends there,” Pichette said. She is concerned about what impact the show’s move will have on local merchants.

During 26 annual events, the event grew from fewer than 100 cars to 800, with participants traveling from all over California and beyond.

“It has never been a huge show by today’s standards … but it has always drawn great cars and the hobby’s most significant personalities,” wrote Damon Lee in a Custom Rod-der magazine article about the show’s 25th anniversary.

The weekend-long event included activities such as a dance, bowling, church services and meals as well as street cruising and awards.

Within 24 hours of the news of the show’s move to Santa Maria being posted on the Web site, hundreds of past participants weighed in on the move. Some were supportive, others indignant. A few speculated that the burgeoning wine industry in Paso Robles is motivating the city to focus on a different sort of clientele.

“I’m not surprised. Paso wants to be the next Napa Valley with all its wineries. I’m sure there (is) plenty of wine tourist money coming into the city,” wrote Bobby Green.

About 6,000 people bought tickets for the Paso Robles Wine Festival in May.

Chamber president Gibson wrote in an e-mail to the city that his organization supported keeping the show in town with changes, including fewer cars and payment for policing.

“Most of the businesses I talked with during the two days expressed better-than-average sales days with very few problems,” Gibson wrote.

Business owners upset

Local business owners who say the car show was one of their busiest weekends of the year are outraged that the event has been moved south.

Michael Garrotto, owner of Great American Antiques, said the change could cost him up to $12,000 in business that he typically does during the car show weekend.

Tim Thomason, who owns Timmy T’s Pizza, threatened to bill the city $14,000 for the revenue he estimates he’ll lose without hundreds of car enthusiasts and spectators in town that weekend.

“I think that a good portion of the businesses downtown don’t really have too many opportunities to sell their products to a large number of people. For me, that’s our largest weekend,” Thomason said.

Thomason said he never had any problem with unruly car show attendees.

The possibility that another organized event might come to the city that weekend was small solace to Thomason, who has owned the pizza shop for three years. He has personal relationships with many of the exhibitors, he said, who are loyal to the local businesses.

At some hotels, guests exceeded room capacity and damaged property during the event, but overall, Gibson said, most hoteliers are disappointed to see the event go.

Kate Davis, co-owner of Alliance Boardshop, said the event was popular with tourists as well as locals, including her own family.

Davis teared up while recounting memories shared with her father and her two sons at the car show. She added that the weekend is one of the year’s busiest for her business as well as a major fundraising opportunity for clubs and youth groups that sell food to the crowds.

“That’s our favorite family weekend. I don’t want to go to Santa Maria,” she said.

Mayor Frank Mecham

Gary Nemeth, Mayor Pro Tem

John Hamon

Duane Picanco

Fred Strong

Following is the response I received from a member of the Paso Robles city council regarding an e-mail I had sent due to the show being run out of town:

The following was written in response to another letter in this regard:

First, let me say that the "facts" expressed in Sharon's letter are not consistent with those we have. Also, the assumptions as to the City's "reasoning" are somewhat flawed.

As a city we are charged with providing for the health, safety and general welfare of our citizens. Some endeavors, such as special events or promotions, may be related to general welfare but are difficult to justify if, and when, they jeopardize health and/or safety.

I have been an average "car buff" most of my life and have previously owned variousl classic cars. I was honored with an "Honorary Lifetime Membership" in the Golden State Classic Chevys organization in June of 1986. I am also a City Council Member in the City of El Paso de Robles.

Before I became a Council Member the Council adopted a "fiscal neutrality" policy. This means that each person or group who desires to use City resources, including parks, for their own special use must pay the actual costs so that taxpayers' dollars are not subsidizing a private venture. Our cost analysis of a few years ago showed that our fee structure was inadequate to comply with this policy. Fees have been raised in many areas of city facility and resource use on an incremental basis since that time.

However, the West Coast Kustoms Show, of which I have been a fan and supporter for many years, began to present very specific and unforeseen consequences over the past few years which have increased both direct and indirect city costs way beyond any justifiable benefit to our citizens. This was especially true in light of health and safety matters that exhibit themselves especially at the time of this one event.

Paso Robles has been incrementally applying equitable requirements on all of the events and special resource uses for which the City is responsible. Our information indicates that the money received by the promoters of this event are their primary annual family income. This is not exclusively a charitable event. Donations have been made in the past to numerous charitable or non-profit organizations. That is commendable. However, The costs to the City have also been substantial in a number of ways. In 2007 the direct cost was $43,856 with soft costs of an additional $3,523 for labor. The income we received from the sponsor was $1,534 for a net loss of $45,845.

With the closing of three blocks of our streets and our largest downtown parking lot near the City Park for the duration of the event we have had many complaints from citizens who were unable to use the City Library during this event and about the many vending booths that neglected to pay any sales tax attributable to the event so that the City could receive its fair portion.

However, the item of most concern has been the increased lawlessness that seems to have come to Paso Robles with the event. We have no way to attribute this to the vendors or the participants. However, we can look at the general figures for time periods when this and other events are in the City. The service call figures for our Police Department are higher for this event than any other within the City including both the Wine Festival and the California Mid-State Fair. The calls rose from 44 in 2004, to 103 in 2005, to 119 in 2006 and up to 153 in 2007 including three arrests for assaults with a deadly weapon.

Group rivalries were observed between motorcycle clubs known as Hell's Angels, Mongols and Vagos as well as ethnic groups exhibiting vociferous pride in their regions from King City, Salinas and some of our locals. When proximity occurred so did explosive conditions. We deem this to be a threat to our local health and safety that demands recognition, attention and solution.

The opportunity to correct these trends and observed situations was offered to the event's sponsor. That offer was declined.

We regret the loss of a tradition. However, no tradition is so sacred that it is to be indulged at the expense of the health and safety of our citizens and the frugal handling of their tax dollars.

We all do what we have to do to the best of our knowledge and ability. I wish the West Coast Kustom Show the very best of luck in the future. I'm sorry that the consequences locally were so expensive that no one was willing to come forward and remove that obstacle to continuity.

Best wishes,

Councilman Fred Strong
City of El Paso de Robles