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By Miriam Raftery

February 9, 2016 (La Mesa) — The Mesa Village Merchants Association failed to pay back nearly $48,000 it owes to the city of La Mesa for the 2015 Oktoberfest, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Now the city has referred the debt to its collection agency. Arlene Moore, president of the nonprofit merchants’ group, told the Union-Tribune that the organization plans to repay the debt and hopes to continue hosting the Oktoberfest in future years.

The situation has sparked controversy in the community, with some criticizing the merchants for financial mismanagement, while others find fault with the city for requiring full cost recovery for Oktoberfest and other public events.

This is the second year in a row that the merchants’ have been delinquent on payments to the city to cover police security for the event. Last year, the city worked out a repayment plan which the merchants met shortly before the deadline to go forward with the 2015 event. 

The merchants have suffered a downturn in business over the last year during the downtown streetscape improvements, when construction drove customers away and forced cancellation of summer car shows and the annual antique street fair.  

But the city refused to back down on its policy of full-cost recovery. Oktoberfest was scaled down from three days to two to save money, also ending an hour earlier than in the past to reduce security concerns. 

Last year, the downtown merchants’ group parted ways with the La Mesa Chamber, which had co-hosted the event in recent years, and ran the Oktoberfest on its own.

According to Moore, the problem with the 2015 Oktoberfest was that only 60 vendors signed up for booth, instead of the 100 anticipated, the Union-Tribune reported.

But some city officials say that’s no excuse.

“The city fulfilled its obligation to keep the public safe during the event and provide the services necessary for the event to take place,” Councilwoman Kristine Alessio stated. “The merchants have not honored their obligations. Trust between the government and private sectors should be a matter of course.”

Revelations of the merchants’ failure to repay their debt—again—has sparked a heated discussion on Facebook.

Craig Maxwell, owner of Maxwell’s House of Books, observed, “Too bad. Too bad. This was a good chance for the merchants to redeem themselves. They failed.”

Maxwell said he and others “pleaded with the city” to give the merchants a second chance. But now he reflects that the merchants’ group will be “hard pressed to enlist any future support,” adding that city staff laid out the costs and advised the merchants to refrain from signing, given past financial troubles, but in the end gave the group a second chance. “There were no surprises here,” he said.

But some find fault with the city, at least in part. 

Guy Blumenthal, owner of Blumenthal Jewelers, wrote, “At least we tried and worked very hard to make it work for ALL the merchants. Trying to get the city to help to keep the cost recovery down was impossible.”  Shrinking the size and length of the event cut into the merchants’ income, he observed, adding that he believes the police cost was “way overdone.”

He said some crafters declined to rent booths, believing downtown construction was still underway. Leaving intersections open also cut down on the merchants’ ability to sell food booths, according to Blumenthal.

“We aren’t stupid business people, and we worked very hard,” said Blumenthal, who voiced bitterness toward those who have sought to put all the blame on the merchants.  “Let the city run it now, they have all the cards,” he concluded.

Mark Robak, a real estate broker in La Mesa, voiced criticism of the city for demanding full cost recovery.

“Other cities commonly donate services to help make a community event a success for the greater good,” he said. “In fact, I was told Oktoberfest used to be that way as well until the fairly recent past.”

He noted that the Hooley’s to Hooley’s St. Patrick’s Day Run “never got off the ground a few years ago, because of La Mesa’s insistence on cost recovery.” The event moved to El Cajon, after the city “did the right thing”, and it’s drawn large crowds to that city.

“I think the Merchants’ Association [has] some issues,” Robak concluded, “but I think there is a bigger picture to look at here, too.”