The La Mesa Village Merchants Association threw their first Oktoberfest 42 years ago. Their website states “over 100,000 attendees” now flock to the annual gathering. With the disruption from the La Mesa Streetscape Project and change in format, dates, and times, how did Oktoberfest 2015 unfold?
This year’s event was in doubt up until July 28, when the city council approved the association’s application over some objections, in part due to money owed the city for two prior events. The council also required the event to close at 10 p.m., rather than 11 p.m.
The association assumed responsibility for the event after a seven-year partnership with the chamber of commerce. Whereas Oktoberfest formerly took place on La Mesa Boulevard and on both the east and west sides of Spring Street, for 2015 it was limited to the east side. And while in previous years it took place over three days, this year it was reduced to two.
With the smaller footprint and reduced schedule, the cost recovery due the city for staff time went from $85,673 in 2014 to $63,504 this year, according to Greg Humora, director of public works/city engineer for the City of La Mesa. The roughly 26 percent reduction in cost recovery seems disproportionate to some, in view of the event being one-third shorter (two days instead of three) and over a 40 precent smaller area (three blocks instead of five blocks along La Mesa Boulevard).
Even with this cost reduction, Oktoberfest 2015 was not considered a success by everyone. Jessica Sinado at the Lather Hair Salon described sales during the event as pretty much “a dead weekend,” from about 3 p.m. Friday onward. “People came to party,” not shop, she said. Neither regular customers, let alone walk-ins, came by, in large part due to the lack of parking caused by the street being closed down, she speculated.
Sinado described a change in the event’s theme from its typical emphasis on arts and crafts; this was a complaint echoed by Sherri Buck, owner of Handful of Wildflowers, another of the small businesses closing down in La Mesa. The movement away from arts and crafts is “killing it more and more each year,” said Buck. Commercial vendors, she said, have taken the place of arts and crafts.
As Rayanna Young at the Regal Bar observed, it was the “wrong mix” of vendors; she said one was selling garage doors and another attempted to sell her a shower. She likened the collection of vendors to “those pesky kiosk” salespeople encountered in malls, where they follow you while making their sales pitch.
Even though the regulars still came in, Young indicated business was down during Oktoberfest. From her place behind the bar, she has a good view out the front window onto La Mesa Boulevard. By her estimate, the crowds were down quite a bit, compared to years past, particularly during the daytime. In the absence of more reliable estimates on this year’s attendance, others echoed Young’s guesstimate. She also commented that there were noticeably fewer high-school-aged people in the crowds.
According to Frank Dittmer, owner of What a Dish and member of the merchants’ association, “The main beer garden did well; however, the event as a whole was not successful, losing money.”
Reportedly, the cost of vendor booths, at $700 each, made it difficult to sell them all. Says Dittmer, “A majority of the cost recovery and also a majority of the expenses due the city was for the police! Which in my personal opinion was completely unnecessary and overkill. La Mesa is a very paranoid and conservative area.”
The latter comment may refer to security problems in prior years, when fights broke out between groups of young people. As a small-business owner, Dittmer was not pleased with the 2015 results, saying, “As for sales, I can't speak for other businesses, but have the event stop at Spring [Street]. And cutting off the west end was a huge mistake. Oktoberfest 2014, my sales were approximately $2300 over the three days; this year I made $500.”
His dissatisfaction parallels that of David Chiodo of Trattoria Tiramisu, located on the east side of Spring Street, where the event was held. In Chiodo’s view, it would be fine if Oktoberfest went away because street closure eliminated customer parking, and access for his deliveries was adversely impacted. In the end, he says he did less business than normal. “It may be good for the bars, but not for the restaurants,” he said.
Another merchant, Mike Moore of the Park Estate Company, provided a more positive view of Oktoberfest 2015: it was “best in the last five years,” with “the crowds a thousand times better,” he said. Even as a smaller (less area) and shorter (hours and days) event, it was far better, in his view. In specific, he commented on the fewer number of teenagers, likely due to the change in format not being as attractive to them. In the past, he had experienced rowdy teenagers roaming through his shop (in at least one instance, setting off “stink bombs"). Such was not the case this year, as the crowds were “nice and friendly.” He also reported doing more business than in years past.
Looking at law-enforcement activity during Oktoberfest over the past three years, information provided by the La Mesa Police Department indicates downward trends, even when accounting for fewer days and shortened hours. Calls for service were 60 in 2013, 42 in 2014, and 22 in 2015; arrests totaled 7 in 2013, 8 in 2014, and 2 in 2015. Of the 17 arrests over the three years, the predominant cause (7, or 41 percent) was for public intoxication. One interpretation of this information supports Moore’s characterization that the 2015 event was calmer than in previous years.
Moore was not alone in describing increased police presence, joining Dittmer, Sinado, and Young in observing there were many more uniformed officers visible during this year’s event. Moore stated he observed one time when a group of eight officers was walking down the street together, rather than being more broadly deployed throughout the event. Obviously pleased with the tone of the crowds this year, Moore nevertheless expressed concern for the cost of all the police being paid at “time and a half.”
Though there are many indications that the Streetscape improvement project is coming to an end, Moore, along with other merchants on La Mesa Boulevard, feel the project hasn’t been wrapped up soon enough. Standing outside his store on a recent Monday afternoon, he pointed out spray-painted marks on the new asphalt — the kind of marks made by workers indicating something is going to be dug up. Further west on the street, crews were in the process of digging up other sections of recently redone asphalt, such as at the intersection of La Mesa Boulevard and Acacia.
Shaking his head, Moore complained that he does not see members of the city council walking in this area of town.