Could merchant stamps help?

Books Inc. does it. So does Tomatina, Papa Murphy’s pizza, Borders Books and a handful of other businesses.

What they do is reward their customers, and themselves, by offering a discount or free product after a preset number of purchases. It’s the same kind of promotional strategy that once was part of shopping nearly everywhere in Alameda, when paper stamps were provided to customers. The customer collected the stamps in a little book and when the book(s) were full, they took them to any merchant in town who offered the stamps and redeemed them for products.

The stamp era ended in Alameda sometime around 1990. But maybe 2009 is the time to reconsider such a strategy. It’s good for the customer and it’s good for the business. And it’s no news that both groups are in very real need of help. Unemployment continues to grow in record numbers, forcing people to radically cut back on expenditures and in turn, forcing businesses to downsize or close, creating even fewer jobs and forcing even more people to watch every penny.

A town needs commerce, not just to feed and clothe its residents, but to generate sales tax revenues. Alameda has already lost its lion’s share of sales taxes from the exodus of car dealerships along the north end of Park Street. Add to that the recession, the threat of losing gas taxes to the state (which may partially or fully close three of our bridges) and jobs falling down the rabbit hole and it’s easy to understand why sales tax revenue is crucial.

Besides encouraging customers to return to their businesses, the stamps would also encourage residents to buy in Alameda whenever possible. Supporting our local merchants isn’t just a sentimental term, it’s a pragmatic, logical way to keep our town in running order. It’s a way to help maintain, even gain, jobs for unemployed residents. And it’s a way to bolster property values. Not many people are inclined to move to a town where the downtown is progressively boarded up.

We’re fortunate that new retailers are still moving here, helping fill the vacancies in our shopping districts. But we’ll need more than good fortune to get through this fiscal desert. We’ll need to be more creative than ever before, whether its stamps, contests or whatever we, as business people and as residents, can do to help support us all.


No drama since theater opened

On May 22, 2008 the Alameda Theatre reopened after going dark in 1979. It is lovely. But the process leading to its renewal was, at times, a battlefield, as is the case nearly every time there is a plan to change something in Alameda.

Its opponents believed:

It would be too big, thereby ruining the atmosphere and views of the homey downtown area.

It would crush the streets with massive traffic.

It would go broke because this town couldn’t support an eight-screen movie house.

And sometimes, there was a subtext from a handful of opponents, a mostly unspoken fear that it would bring people from other towns to Alameda. In addition to the traffic, the out-of-towners would surely bring crime to the area.

Today, despite vacancies in some commercial sites, downtown looks a lot better than it did five, or even 10 years ago. I don’t worry about crime, or hear about it, nearly as much as I did when the theater building housed a teen nightclub in the late 1980s. I knew some teens who went there and from what they told me, it was far from the wholesome institution its operator touted it to be. Whether the operator knew it or not, the kids told me there were plenty of drugs consumed at the club. He sold the city on a concept to give youth a place to go in town at night, where they would be off the streets, where they could enjoy games and music and dancing. But, judging from the number of police calls from residents from nearby streets, it looks like the teens I knew were speaking the truth when they implied the operation was unlike any other youth center. Eventually, it closed and things settled down again.

The theater has brought us back, in a way, to the past. Downtown has a focal point again, Alamedans have movies again, teens have another place to work in their own hometown and more restaurants have cropped up in the area. Parents and kids see family movies together and go for ice cream afterward. Couples enjoy dinner and a movie. Teens go to movies in groups.

Even in this wracked economy, they’re doing this and the result is revenues, severely needed revenues, for the city. Certainly the theater and the city’s businesses in general cannot repair our budget, but as we’ve all become painfully aware in the past couple of years, every penny really does count.


The pot that fell through the cracks

Well, the last week’s story, “Fate of Alameda pot club likely heading to court,” doesn’t really have a happy ending for anyone.  The City Council just said no to the Purple Elephant medical marijuana dispensary on Webster Street. (Say, wouldn’t that business name give you a little red flag regarding its inventory — other than children’s toys.)

Not that, if one is trying to open a pot dispensary, one would necessarily go to City Hall and say, “Howdy. We’re going to sell pot over on Webster Street for people with medical problems. How about a nice business license. Here’s our check.”

Chances are, that wouldn’t fly. So instead, you might just mention that you’re going to sell “miscellaneous retail,” which seems like a smarter way to get that license.

So, they opened last summer, the city somehow discovered that miscellaneous retail is pot-related and revoked its license and now the business has said it’s taking the city to court to stay in operation.

People have pretty strong opinions about pot. It’s a love-hate thing, even while the state goes about reconsidering whether or not it should be legalized. The council didn’t make a statement about whether medical marijuana dispensaries are bad or good, nor whether marijuana is bad or good, though surely they each have their own opinions on the topic. Instead, the council chose to put a moratorium on dispensaries as a land use issue, to look at how they affect health and safety.

The bad thing here is that, if the city is concerned about those issues, how did this go through in the first place? It’s one of those slip-ups that has caused bad news for the operation, its customers and the people in the West End who feel their business district isn’t the right place for it. A lot of people have been affected. We could blame the dispensary owner for trying to slip through the cracks with his “miscellaneous retail” line, but, frankly, if I got a mailer from a company called Purple Elephant that only sold miscellaneous retail, I’d have a pretty good suspicion there was something the Purple Elephant was keeping to itself.

If another business applies for a license and it’s called, say, The Joint, and sells undefined, miscellaneous items, it would be prudent for the city to do a little research before making any decisions.


Life on the Island: Alameda Safe Schools curriculum

Life on the Island, the column I write for the Alameda Journal is up online now. This week it’s about the Alameda Unified School District’s proposed anti-bullying curriculum…the one that has generated buckets of publicity in recent months. I write, in part:

…teaching about same-gender families is no more about sex than the words “marriage” and “husband” and “wife” and “wedding” are about sex. Yes, marriage is based in part on a sexual commitment, but we speak about husbands and wives all the time in a way in which sexuality is not the focus. To children, the word lesbian is no more about sex than the word marriage is.

You can read the whole piece here.


Touching sacred cows: Alameda’s Measure A

Last week I wrote a column for the Alameda Journal about Measure A, a sacred cow of Alameda politics. I said that we ought to think about means of controlling growth that allow for thoughtful and comprehensive (rather than reactionary) planning. I wrote:

It is well within human ingenuity to craft laws that allow for the construction of apartments where it is appropriate and still protect handsome old houses. And it is folly to cling so tightly to a law passed out of fear and anger. It’s time for Alameda to show that it can protect what is valuable about its past at the same time as it embraces the future.

You can, of course, read the whole column here.


Alameda life, without owning a car

I wrote about my family’s no-car experience in my column last week, Car-free and OK. And, as with most everything that humans do, I am not to first to give this sort of endeavor a try. You can read about other people’s experiences with reducing car travel:

Chad Jones: Living car-free in the Bay Area

Joe Rodriguez: How and why I became—and have remained—car free

Mountain View family trades cars for bikes, enjoys life more

Carless in Sacramento (by choice)

You can also read the column I wrote my family’s our experience back in August when we first sold our cars. That one is called, Kicking the habit of using a car.


Play fair, Alameda

Life on the Island, the column I write for the print edition of the Alameda Journal, is up online now. This week it’s about Save Our City! Alameda and how the group’s tactic of asserting that the city is on the verge of bankruptcy as a way to bolster opposition to development at Alameda Point just serves to muddle debate and make it harder for people to get to the real, complicated issues that concern Alamedans.


Alameda firefighters making ‘robo’ calls

I got a phone call yesterday with a recorded message from an Alameda firefighter. The message was so fast that I did not catch the name of the firefighter who was speaking, though I think it was Mike or Mark. The core of the message was that cuts to the fire department (on January 26 the department has been mandated to reduce overtime) will impact response time for some Alameda neighborhoods. The message mentioned the Gold Coast, Bay Farm and Alameda’s West End and then urged the listener to lobby City Hall to prevent cuts. How much does it cost to auto-dial every Alameda household? Who funds these efforts?

I can’t help but think of the line from Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he honored the hard work and sacrifices Americans are making to make things better for all of us. He referenced employees who allow their own hours to be cut so others may keep their jobs. That is bravery, no? To say, I will make do with a little less so others don’t lose everything entirely.

In a time when so many are losing jobs, losing retirement security, having their pay cut and otherwise struggling economically, I can not find legitimacy in the stance being taken by Alameda firefighters. There is not an infinite pot of money. Times are bad. Everyone should be impacted as budgets shrink…not everyone with the exception of some. Of course I wish it weren’t so…of course everyone wishes it weren’t so. But it is. So, it’s time to move away from the adversarial stance, an I-me-my orientation, and it’s time for the firefighters to work with the city to maintain emergency services as well as all the other services that make for a vital community.

As I have mentioned previously, Alameda firefighters make over $100,000 a year, with many earning 10 and 20 and 40 thousand additional dollars a year in over time. Alameda firefighters receive full, life-time medical benefits for themselves and a spouse after just five years of service. They are eligible to retire at 50, with 3 percent of their highest salary in pension for each year of service. Meanwhile, Alameda’s non-public safety employees receive only a tiny stipend (something around $100 a month) toward health care in retirement, and they are eligible to retire at 55, with 2 percent of their highest salary per year of service in pension. I am not, of course, saying that I don’t think firefighters should be well-compensated and have security in retirement…I just think that taking a hard bargain stance when the current system is so out of balance (so many employees now have no pensions, no health care on retirement…heck, no health care even while they are working) and when the economy is such a disaster is really perplexing.


Life on the Island: Firefighter staffing levels

This week’s Life on the Island, the column I write for the Alameda Journal, is up online. This week it’s about cuts to the fire department, and how they’ll impact services for Alamedans. While on the one hand, no reduction in any public safety staff is acceptable—being less safe, having less access to quick medical care or having fewer firefighters on duty is not okay…no one wants this. But, in reality, these are horrible budget times and not just something, but everything, has to give.

As I write in the column, all city departments have cut back, police and fire by a smaller percentages than other departments. Alameda’s interim finance director Ann Marie Gallant addressed the fire department funding issue at this week’s city council meeting: “We don’t have too many options here. Other department services are going to have to be cut or you go into one time [payments from] cash reserves [to cover the fire department budget].” (All city departments, with the exception of police and fire, have already been cut by eight percent this year.) “Even if you were to solve it for this fiscal year, it doesn’t go away,” said Gallant. “It doesn’t go away until this city has more resources that are discretionary in the general fund to allocate for service levels you would like not necessarily service levels you can afford.”

More on the issue here.