Mayor listens to concerns of small businesses

by Paul Kozakiewicz

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee joined Geary merchants for an intimate lunch at Aziza to hear their thoughts and concerns.

About 30 merchants and community leaders gathered March 5 to discuss issues of importance to the business community, including taxes, vacant storefronts and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits.

Several merchants said the city's payroll tax puts local merchants at a disadvantage with competition in neighboring cities and on the Internet.

John Horton, co-owner of SF Toyota on Geary, told the mayor he has to pay a large payroll tax on his employees, a tax another Toyota dealer in nearby Colma does not have to pay. That is one factor that helps drive up the cost of vehicles in San Francisco, he said.

Concerning ADA lawsuits, the Richmond has already been hit hard, with dozens of businesses being served, primarily from one attorney who has filed numerous lawsuits. The Video Cafe and Thidwick Books have already closed and Hamburger Haven and Bill's Place are the latest businesses to be served notice that they will be sued unless they fix alleged ADA violations and pay a large sum of money to settle the cases; money businesses say is nothing more than legal extortion.

Robert Roddick, the president of the Noe Valley Merchants & Professionals Association, has been working with the 100 merchants in Noe Valley to make businesses located there ADA compliant. He said there are free ADA meetings on the first and third Thursdays of the month at the Noe Valley Branch Library, at 9:30 a.m., for merchants who want more information.

According to David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owners Association, there are about 80 vacant storefronts along the commercial corridor. The problem is exacerbated, he says, because the MTA is planning to rip up Geary Boulevard over a couple of years to remove a traffic lane for vehicles and to create a dedicated bus route in the middle of the street for buses only (BRT). Merchants are hesitant to sign long-term leases when they know major construction projects are coming, especially in light of the Muni T-Line streetcar, which was a disaster for businesses in the Third Street corridor.

After listening to the merchants concerns, the mayor said he is working to make the City more business-friendly and to attract new businesses as part of his job growth plan. He is exploring other options besides the payroll tax and is trying to build a $5 million fund to make business loans.

"I abhor vacancies," Lee added.

The mayor also took the opportunity to warn about a ballot measure that may be coming up that would remove the Hetch Hetchy Dam in the Sierra Nevada, eliminating water storage and clean hydroelectric power that benefits city residents. He is also working to create more public-private partnerships and to make the City more attractive for veterans.

"We want to entice veterans to come back," Lee said.

At the luncheon there was also a special presentation given to Jordanna Thigpen, an attorney who has been working with victims of a scam allegedly perpetuated by former Richmond District resident Keith Wilson. Wilson was arrested in Stockton in January and is facing multiple fraud charges. He is being held in lieu of a $1 million bond being posted.

Thigpen did the legwork to find the victims and get the legal ball rolling. She was given accommodations by SF Police Chief Greg Suhr and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma for her efforts.

Thigpen warned potential investors to do their "due diligence" before committing to any investment opportunity, especially if the return on investment seems too good to be true.

"Those are my safe words of wisdom for the day," she said.

Also attending the meeting were Ron Miguel, former president of the Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR) and SF Planning Commission; Chris Wright, executive director of the Committee on Jobs; Jim Lazarus, a vice president with the SF Chamber of Commerce; Nathan Nayman, governmental relations representative with VISA; Regina Dick-Endrizzi, executive director of the Office of Small Business; Phil Ginsburg, head of the SF Recreation and Park Department; Capt. Eric Vintero, commanding officer at the Richmond Police Station; and SF Police Commander Richard Corriea.