For the first time in the six years since it shut down a long-running downtown swap meet, the Lompoc City Council this month began exploring a potential return for the popular market concept.
The governing body looked at various aspects of bringing back a downtown swap meet during its Aug. 4 meeting but ultimately decided to hold off on further discussions — and possible action — until after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed and public health restrictions are eased.
The move to table the discussion was supported 4-1 by the City Council, with the majority citing the uncertain nature of the pandemic’s progress, as well as various concerns about the specific operations of a city-run swap meet and its potential impacts on surrounding businesses.
Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who pushed to have the discussion, delivered the lone vote of opposition. She said she was discouraged by the direction of the conversation, noting that she viewed the swap meet as a way to potentially bring back some part-time staffers who had lost work due to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as a way to deliver welcome news to the community.
“I was looking for new and innovative ways to move things forward in a community that is stressed out and struggling, so I’m disappointed,” she said.
While the Aug. 4 decision won't immediately bring back the swap meet, it did leave the door open for the future.
A swap meet had previously been allowed to operate in the city under the direction of private concessionaires for 25 years in a parking lot on the southwest corner of I Street and Ocean Avenue. It was shut down by the city in mid-2014 after organizers and city officials were unable to agree on how best to address a list of operational and regulatory concerns raised by neighbors and community members.
Those concerns included complaints about noise, trash being left behind and parking violations. The regulatory concerns included questionable enforcement of vendors having proper licenses and permits.
According to a presentation led by city staff, the potential new-look swap meet would address many of those issues while also boosting the city’s coffers.
The swap meet proposed by staff would be held on Saturdays and located in the same lot as the former operation — the City Council had planned to focus on the location after the initial discussion, but that plan was rendered moot with the decision to table the concept — with setup from 7 to 9 a.m., operation from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and cleanup from 3 to 5 p.m.
Unlike the previous version, this time the city would have two part-time staffers on site for the duration of the event to ensure that vendors and attendees were following proper protocols. Vendors would be able to sell with a permit from the state and a city business license, and community members would be allowed to register twice per year for a $30 daily permit to sell at the swap meet.
The figures provided by city staff showed an expected annual expense of about $40,000, with a little more than half of that going toward the cost of staffing city employees. Other expected costs, based on 40 swap meets per year, include security, marketing and toilet and trash services.
Those costs would be overshadowed, though, by the revenue generated by the swap meet, according to city staff. Assuming the swap meet has 70 vendor spaces, the city reported that it could expect to bring in $50,400 — for a surplus of $10,400 — at just half capacity, and $70,560 — for a surplus of $30,560 — at 70% capacity.
Not everyone was confident in those numbers, however.
Councilwoman Gilda Cordova was perhaps most direct, as she stated outright her belief that “we are low-balling the fiscal impact.”
“I don’t see a part-time staffer, with everything that we’ve discussed and the regulations that we would be putting in place and the potential oversight to ensure that all this stuff is addressed,” handling such a heavy load, she said.
Among the five community members who called in to the Aug. 4 meeting to speak on the matter, four were supportive of bringing back the weekly outdoor market.
“It allowed for the community to have a meeting place where they could just come out and lightheartedly meet and greet each other, and at the same time, find some really nice things that they could purchase,” resident Darrell Tullis said of the former swap meet, which he suggested never should have been shut down.
The lone speaker opposed to the idea of relaunching the swap meet was a man who said his family owned a restaurant near the proposed location. He said his family was already struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic and suggested that the City Council spend more time considering ways to help existing businesses, rather than exploring ways to bring in added competition for them.
Another speaker, however, identified herself as a former small business owner and said the previous iteration of the swap meet actually helped her bring in new customers and was a major boost to her business.
There was also a mini-debate among council members about the nature, and name, of the swap meet.
Councilman Jim Mosby said he’d be supportive of providing a venue for people to sell secondhand goods, but he said he considered it unfair for the city to subsidize an avenue for out-of-towners to bring in new products from Los Angeles or other regions and undercut local established businesses. He suggested requiring vendors to have at least 75% of their merchandise be used.
Mayor Osborne argued that such a stipulation would be difficult to enforce, and said they could look at calling it a “public market” if the term “swap meet” conflicted with the idea of selling new wares. She suggested charging more for out-of-town vendors, but city attorney Jeff Malawy said that raised legal concerns.
In the end, while most members of the council expressed support for at least some version of a swap meet, they decided to hold off until they have more clarity post-pandemic.
Councilman Victor Vega, who was in favor of more accessibility for community members to set up shop at the swap meet, said he felt it was “admirable” that the council was looking to bring back a community event, but “I couldn’t support putting … more stress on the businesses at this time. These guys are barely making it, some of them, and some of them are already closed.”
Councilman Mosby agreed.
“Maybe we need to see what the temperature of the water is six months from now and see if that’s something we can get close to doing,” he said.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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