Business owners question Downtown Lodi Business Partnership closure - News - Mobile

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Business owners question Downtown Lodi Business Partnership closure

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Downtown business owner Ken Pratt says he's upset that he paid his annual dues to the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership in January, yet he won't be getting a full year's service from the organization.

"I paid my dues to an organization that stopped existing three months after," said Pratt, owner of Stooges, a bar on West Pine Street. "Not that they did that much."

The partnership is in the process of disbanding after serving Downtown Lodi businesses for more than 13 years. The first step toward disbanding will be tonight, when the Lodi City Council considers issuing a resolution of intent to discontinue the DLBP.

Meanwhile, Pratt said Tuesday he was upset that the partnership expected business owners to pay dues while it may have known it would disband shortly after receiving payment.

City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said the financially strapped DLBP was faced with either increasing annual dues charged to Downtown business owners, or disbanding.

Jaime Watts, DLBP's executive director until March 1, said that revenue paid in January was used to pay off bills incurred in 2012, such as the office rental, utilities and Watts' salary.

Watts and Schwabauer didn't have specific figures on Tuesday regarding the DLBP's financial obligations, but Schwabauer said he would make them available today.

The business organization's board of directors voted on Feb. 11 to disband. The Lodi Chamber of Commerce will take over the Downtown Lodi Farmers Market on School Street, which operates each Thursday from the first week of June until the final week of September, and the popular Parade of Lights in December.

John Johnson, who owns Ciao Bella Salon on West Pine Street with his wife, said he's upset that the DLBP board voted to close its doors shortly after collecting its annual assessments from Downtown businesses, but he believes it's his and other business owners' fault if they didn't attend the DLBP's monthly board meetings.

"If I knew in December they were closing, I would have contested the assessment," Johnson said. "I would have asked, 'Why do you need the money?'"

Erin Smith, a DLBP board member and owner of Scooters California Grill on West Elm Street, said that no DLBP money is going into anyone's pocket.

Watts said the 2012 bills have been paid, and the organization is current on all its payments. The DLBP has traditionally had cash-flow issues late in the year, she said. Bills payable late one year are paid the following February with dues payments made the previous month, Watts said.

"If it's a timing issue, what is the reason to disband the DLBP?" Johnson asked.

Tammy Blair, owner of Fashion Safari on School Street, said she's not expecting any leftover DLBP dues paid this year to be returned to business owners, but she said she wasn't upset about it.

And Cindy Della Monica, owner of Cheese Central, said it's too early to tell how the DLBP closing its doors will affect merchants.

"I'm assuming there is somebody who audits the books," Della Monica said. "Transition is never easy."

Business owners were assessed from $90 to $600 in dues annually, depending on the business's size, type and location, Watts said.

Although her employment as DLBP's executive director officially ended on March 1, Watts will continue to work on a contract basis until the books are officially closed. She doesn't recall how much she makes per hour on contract.

Watts' annual salary was $47,000-plus before she ended her official employment with DLBP, but she says she didn't receive any health or other benefits.

Dues paid by Downtown business owners generated about $40,000, and the city of Lodi contributed more than $24,000 toward the $130,000 annual budget.

The Farmers Market and Parade of Lights are the only DLBP events that made money, Watts said. Remaining special events to promote the Downtown area, such as Halloween- and Christmas-themed events, were subsidized by the group.

"It's different than just one business, which can just close their doors and walk away," Watts said. "We want to honor all our obligations and commitments, and make sure we do everything we can in the most upright way."

Schwabauer said that Watts never gave the city any indication that DLBP was in financial trouble in 2012, but Watts said the idea of disbanding was discussed during public board meetings the past two years.

"The money already got spent," Johnson said. "It's a little late now to complain."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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