Gilroy has lost small businesses to other cities and frustrated others with what’s seen as hostility and over-regulation that created a seething cold war between City Hall and Main Street.
It’s too late for merchants who fled or closed, but new signs point to a possible ceasefire, a thaw, more cooperation and a revitalization of what has been an ailing historic downtown business district.
“There was a time when all you had to do was look at anybody from the city and the answer was no, or the answer was so obviously unhelpful you did not know how to proceed,” said Linda Williams, who quit her job in biotech and, with no retail experience, bought the long-established Nimble Thimble Quilt Shop and moved it into an aging downtown storefront she purchased and renovated at 7455 Monterey Road.
Now, she said, “I am starting to change my mind, I am guardedly optimistic.”
Downtown activist Gary Walton has done business in Gilroy for 30 years. He, too, detects a change for the better.
“I have a lot of faith, I am actually optimistic about downtown,” he said, two days after showing a prospective new downtown businessman around.
It’s time for the city and merchants to pull together and stop being adversaries, according to Walton.
“If the city staff understands this is a partnership, rather than ‘we need to control those dirty bastards and make them crawl through broken glass,’ we are going to do a lot in the future,” he said.
What has been so frustrating, he said, is “the city has absolutely no road map that tells how to get a permit, no timelines for the process. Other cities have flow charts for the process. If Gilroy would clearly spell out the steps and give you a road map and tell you how long it takes, instead of it all being hit and miss.”
Merchants complain that the city doesn’t provide much help getting through a maze of rules and point to a lack of help from city staff—concerning permits for signage, expansion, licensing and earthquake safety—making it extremely complicated to open a mom and pop store.
Examples of discord reveal a continuum of clashes that have pitted the city against merchants for years, most notably during the reigns of former city manager Tom Haglund and former Mayor Don Gage, according to some critics.
Gage has been accused in the past of trying to force his esthetic likes and dislikes down the throats of a unhappy merchants with repressive design standards and bans on certain types of businesses.
He and Haglund resigned last year and relieved and hopeful merchants point to other changes in key city positions that could augur a newer, kinder relationship with the merchant community.
Take auto-related businesses, for example, which Gage repeatedly tried to ban from the downtown while encouraging them along the freeway. The city has since backed off on that downtown restriction, according to Walton.
But not before there was damage. With a small desk, filing cabinets and a phone—nothing that smacked of the automobile industry—John Trinchero ran a successful car wholesale business at a 7810 Monterey Street storefront for 23 years until 2012.
His family ran businesses in town since the 1920s, including its first pizza parlor and the old Hecker Pass Inn that fed diners for 50 years on First Street.
At 73, Trinchero wanted to retire and for two years tried to turn the business over to his European university-educated son.
But that required a new business license for the proposed new ownership, the city told him, which would trigger a city law that at the time banned auto-related businesses in the downtown that did not exist before its passage, according to Trinchero, now 77.
He reluctantly closed shop and retired and his son returned to Europe. He still is bitter.
“Opening a small business in Gilroy and getting the city to let you operate after you open is near impossible,” Trinchero wrote about the situation. “Dealing with city employees who seem to be trained to keep small businesses [tied up] with so much red tape you just give up,” he wrote.
In an interview this week he said, “These are just mom and pop businesses, but you can’t get any help from the city.”
Another merchant said her sales fell 20 percent and she was threatened with fines when the city enacted a new sign ordinance that many found overbearing.
“They try to squeeze money out of you any way they can,” she said of the citations and regulations.
She opposed the Gage-led Measure F, a proposed city sales tax hike that voters rejected last year, wondering why people would buy in Gilroy if the tax had passed.
She and her husband wanted to purchase and renovate an old building for their business and met with city leaders, but were so badly treated they gave up and opted for Morgan Hill, she said. New city leadership is no better than the old, she said, calling Gilroy “a nightmare” to deal with.
“When Walmart came in the city waived so many things, but for small businesses they won’t waive anything,” she said. “I love Gilroy, but for a small business Morgan Hill is much more embracing, they were welcoming.”
She asked not to be identified, fearing retaliation by the city if she ever tries to return.
Walton was not surprised. Her reaction, he said, “is not unusual. It is really sad when people fear their government, it shows that people feel that it is corrupt and not fair.”
At Predator’s Archery on Monterey Road, a half-block south of the iconic Old City Hall, owners Curtis Campisi and Mike Pierce have in 23 years turned a $10,000 investment into an international business that grosses $1.1 million a year and employs a half-dozen people. Among the state’s 25 archery dealers, it ranks fourth in sales, Campisi said.
When they tried to expand into a next-door storefront for a second indoor archery range, they were shocked by the city’s response.
The city halted the project, demanded a new, wooden design to meet historic standards and slapped them with an additional $4,000 permit fee for being in a historic district.
That brought the fees to $8,000 on a project budgeted to cost $5,000, Campisi said. And when it came to knowing exactly how to proceed, the city was no help, the Gilroy native said.
“They need a resource liaison, someone who will hold [applicants’] hands and tell them the guidelines,” Campisi said.
After more meetings, Campisi seems confident that at least some of the fee will be reduced. Still, he questioned the $4,000 fee and what it actually pays for.
At the Nimble Thimble, Williams said ending friction between the city and merchants boils down to keeping the lines of communication open.
“I really do think in the last six months things have gotten much, much better,” she said.
In spite of what she was put through, Williams said, “I am glad I did it. I moved from Pasadena to Gilroy and I love it. I want to be part of downtown and I want it to be a good town, the kind I want to live in—we just have some things to figure out.”
Walton is determined to figure out and fix things and, characteristically, is operating beyond the city’s reach to do so.
He is forming a design committee made up of professionals who will voluntarily assist merchants with their issues, to fill the void he believes has been created by a city staff and leadership that has not been people- or business-friendly.
The committee will prepare merchants before they ever approach the city, Walton said.
Small businesses are the backbone of the economy, he said, citing studies that show cities that welcome and help them are more economically vital than those that don’t. Indeed, downtown merchants as a group are one of the city’s largest employers, he said. The welcoming must start at the top, Walton continued. The smooth to rough cycles the city goes through in dealing with merchants are tied to its leadership, and it’s the tone of that leadership that is reflected in the way the staff handles small businesses, he said.
“You have to be business-friendly in order to accomplish the economic development this community needs; there is an inverse relationship between the amount of regulation and amount of business in a community,” he said.
But there are signs that things indeed are improving, according to the longtime businessman.
In his tireless efforts to attract businesses to town, Walton last Saturday walked through several vacant stores with a bookshop owner contemplating relocating his store from Mountain View to Gilroy. A top city planning staffer showed up to help.
“On her own time,” Walton said. “That is a good sign.”