Marcella Di Michieli — energetic and voluble — begs to differ. “Vaughn Woods is the nastiest man I’ve ever met; he yells at our customers and sprays them with his hose; he sent me a psychotic email. Sand? Hey, it’s the beach — what does he expect? It’s sandy, it’s crowded, traffic is bad. We all knew that coming in; but in a small, popular beach area, it would be that way even without the kayaks. But we try to be good neighbors.” Bill Whitney, who owns several buildings on the “kayak strip,” comes down squarely on the side of San Diego Bike & Kayak, saying, “None of this would happen if Vaughn Woods complied with the local codes himself. He’s a hypocrite, someone who lives in a glass house.” Di Michieli also points to extensive community service performed by her outfit, including kayak tours for Southeast San Diego schoolchildren, whose visit to the Shores, claims Di Michieli, triggered a “derogatory racial comment” by Mary Coakley of the Shores Association. (Coakley didn’t return calls for the story.)
It could be argued that Di Michieli, a former triathlete, entered the kayak district (along with low-profile boyfriend Bauman) with a level of funding and marketing savvy not seen before in the once–quasi-bucolic storefronts of Avenida de la Playa. (Woods, for one, complains of San Diego Bike & Kayak’s “mass marketing.”) By all accounts (even from their foes), San Diego Bike & Kayak, bankrolled by Di Michieli’s father, Lorenzo Di Michieli, made an immediate splash in a business and neighborhood where newcomers (aside from tourists who spend money but leave quickly) are treated warily at best. Di Michieli says her company’s impact has been a positive one, punctuated by her enthusiasm for the niche trade. “It’s a privilege to be here. I love the business and I love the area. The Cove is a special place and a tremendous resource.” (The launch site at the foot of Avenida de la Playa is the only such facility within San Diego proper.) But she’s dismayed at what she sees as venomously petty attitudes. “Everyone’s throwing darts at us. Maybe they resent us because we’re successful.” Whatever the root cause, she says that hostility on the insular Avenida has extended far beyond the verbal: on more than one occasion, her kayak trucks have had tires slashed and windows smashed. She confides, “I have a good idea who’s doing it, but I’d rather not say.” (Several other kayak operators report similar vandalism to trucks, as well as threatening notes.)
I asked Di Michieli about the competition, many of whom are husband-and-wife teams: how much of the animosity has emanated from San Diego Bike & Kayak’s rivals versus from the ranks of the community at large? She replied, “This is a cutthroat business.” Conversely, Di Michieli maintains that there’s a palpable level of collegiality and cooperation among Shores kayak operators. Some of the other owners with whom I spoke expressed similar sentiments, albeit with an air of circumspection.
Sharon Luscomb says, ”It’s a tough business on this street.” Luscomb, coowner with husband Michael of La Jolla Kayak, says that her company and Di Michieli’s — referred to at times as the “big two” — are allies. She allows that San Diego Bike & Kayak, sporting hard-charging, younger owners without kids, is less of a “mom and pop” business.
Jennifer Kleck, owner of Aqua Adventures and La Jolla Sea (Cave) Kayaks, says that, unlike San Diego Bike & Kayak, she isn’t trying to expand her business, preferring instead to keep it at a sustainable level. Nonetheless, Kleck, who functions not just as an owner but as a certifier of kayak guides (she trains guides for all the Shores kayak concerns), says that she’s on friendly terms with Di Michieli and the other local boat bosses. Similar sentiments were echoed by Angela Harrell, coowner with husband David Teafatiller of Hike Bike & Kayak. According to Harrell, Di Michieli and Bauman are more driven than their rivals. “The business is all they have.”
On the other hand, John Metzger, owner of OEX Dive & Kayak, believes that San Diego Bike & Kayak is trying to drive him out of business. In June 2009, Di Michieli’s company, under the name LCDM Investments, LLC, filed an unlawful detainer action against OEX, alleging that they’d encroached on a portion of the building they lease from San Diego Bike & Kayak. Less than two months later, through attorney William C. Tayler, they sent a letter to Vladimir Balotsky in the city’s Real Estate Assets office, accusing OEX of violating terms of its concession agreement with the City; San Diego Bike & Kayak charged, among other things, that OEX had conducted tours with noncertified guides and had failed to enforce helmet requirements for participants. John Davis, OEX’s attorney, contends that it’s all gratuitous harassment, saying, “San Diego Bike & Kayak takes a scorched-earth policy toward my client. They’re bullies.”
In an arena in which consensus is scarce at best, the kayak companies with whom I spoke didn’t dispute — notwithstanding the city’s mixed motives — that safety, notably as it relates to kayak congestion in the water, has become a legitimate and growing issue. For its part, the City of San Diego, seeing not only the chance to concoct a new regulatory scheme, but a golden opportunity to extract fees for its coffers, was eager to help — and the sacrosanct, virtually unassailable cause of safety was (as it so often is when new laws are imposed) the perfect backdrop. In the fall of 2008, a gaggle of bureaucrats — employees from Lifeguard Services, Park and Recreation Department, and Real Estate Assets — were assembled to put together a system for licensing the boatmen and allocating time slots among the tour companies, including San Diego Bike & Kayak. What followed was a bidding process in which kayak tour operators were invited to submit proposals — known in public-sector contracting parlance as RFPs, or requests for proposals. The aim, according to the City, was to make the waters safer by reducing the number of kayaks allowed at any given time; the “worthiest” operators would be granted the time slots deemed most favorable, with a cap on the number of weekend tours.