Dispute fizzles: Welcome Center to sell Garlic Fest items

The new Gilroy Welcome Center located in the Gilroy Premium

As of this week, there’s one less brouhaha in town.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival Association board voted unanimously to allow the Welcome Center to sell Garlic Festival themed products and tickets this year, retracting a decision the volunteer board made last fall that prohibited the Welcome Center from selling festival merchandise.

“We’ve got a whole new board this year, and this year we thought it was a good thing to do,” said Hugh Davis, president of the Garlic Festival board.

A few small business owners were irate when the Welcome Center began selling a few Gilroy-themed (and garlicky) products after moving to their new location near Forever 21 in the Gilroy Premium Outlets, claiming that Welcome Center sales detracted from their business. The Welcome Center offered a limited selection of mugs, T-shirts and key chains, as well as a modest selection of souvenirs from Gilroy Gardens and Casa De Fruta.

“There was a huge controversy, them being a government funded business and then turning around and making a profit on a product,” Davis said over the phone Wednesday. “They don’t pay the same taxes and have the same risk as business owners,” he said.

But the storm has settled, and Jane Howard, the Welcome Center director couldn’t be more relieved.

“We are so excited to be an outlet for the Garlic Festival. We think this is a great opportunity to be add to their sales and visibility,” Howard said.

In the first six months of its location change, the Welcome Center saw 13,071 people walk through its door and had distributed more than 16,000 brochures, maps, magazines and coupons, compared with 346 visitors from October to December of 2010, when it was downtown and known as the Visitors Bureau.

Howard said that information is the reason people stop by the Welcome Center, not products. She said sales have so far been modest, with average monthly merchandise sales between $1,500 and $1,750.

For Davis, the controversy was entirely not personal. He said he respects Howard and the work she does through the Welcome Center, but that last year, the board “wanted to stay out of the drama” between business owners and the Welcome Center.

Davis said that the business owners who were angry at the Welcome Center – namely Alex and Charlie Larson who own the Garlic Shoppe just behind the north side of the Outlets, and Rapazzini Winery on the south end of Gilroy off U.S. 101 – have since cooled down.

“I think they learned they were barking up the wrong tree,” Davis said.

Howard said she is excited for all the promoting she gets to do for the Garlic Festival this spring. She hopes to design an aesthetic window display for the festival that will catch people’s eyes as the walk by.

“I’ve never been one to focus much on the past,” Howard said. “This was a partnership that was always meant to be.”

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