Conventional boom or bust?

DNC protesters force L.A.'s mom-and-pop shops into riot mode, while party planners and trendy restaurants rake in the dough.

By Sandra Hernandez
Published August 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Claudio Mammana paced around the empty parking lot of his downtown gas station, wondering how he would recover the $2,000 a day he has lost since the Democrats came to town.

"My business is down by at least 40 percent, and I've been forced to hire extra security in case there are problems," says Mammana, whose business is just two blocks from the Staples Center, the site of this week's Democratic National Convention.

After waving at two nearby security guards sitting in lawn chairs, Mammana pointed to a half dozen police officers standing just a few yards away and appropriately quipped: "They're the only ones on the street."

The convention was supposed to be a big economic coup for the city -- the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated a $135 million windfall with some 35,000 people coming to town.

But just two days into the event, small business owners and local politicians are wondering if the primary beneficiaries of the Democratic love fest will be big businesses and those in posh neighborhoods.

"During the planning of this event there was a lot of talk about the collateral effects this would generate for small business owners in the area," says David Marquez, chief legislative deputy for City Councilman Mike Hernandez. "But with all the street closures, a lot of people are avoiding the area and businesses are being hurt."

Thanks to hovering helicopters, cops on horseback and mobs of Democratic convention-goers, much of downtown resembled a ghost town Tuesday convincing many merchants it was better to board up or close their shops amid fears that further chaos would erupt.

On Monday, thousands of protesters flocked to the convention's fenced-in, designated protest site, where a rock concert by the group Rage Against the Machine was held. By the evening's end, police had used pepper spray and rubber bullets to quell protesters, who pelted them with bricks and bottles. Although no one was seriously injured, police arrested about 10 marchers.

The chaos was reminiscent of a scene earlier in June, when rioting broke out after the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA championship victory at the Staples Center. With such a charged event as the Democratic National Convention now being staged at the same arena, many small business owners in downtown decided not to take any chances during the four days of political hoopla.

"I'm just keeping everything boarded up because I don't want to replace the windows again," says Tony Alfaro, manager of a nearby tire store, which was damaged after the Lakers' win.

For many mom-and-pop shops downtown, the Democratic bash indeed is appearing more of a bust.

"If this were a normal business convention, everyone would be enthusiastic because they would all benefit," says Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "But this was a very unusual event. It's a political event that requires lots of security, massive street closures and could spur potential demonstrations. It's a completely different beast."

Among the hardest hit are about 2,000 jewelry merchants who operate small shops along Pershing Square, less than 10 blocks from the Staples Center. Most of these mostly immigrant entrepreneurs -- who sell everything from diamond rings to watches -- chose to board up their businesses, lest they risk being the target of looting or violence. Kyser says these jewelers have estimated their loss this week at $30 million.

"All we can say to that is that we made every effort to ensure people stay open. We are sorry they made that decision because there are LAPD out there," says Deputy Mayor Manuel Valencia.

Kyser says the convention's host committee tried to reach out to local small businesses, by posting business opportunities on its Web site and in the Los Angeles Times and other local media.

"But the problem is, many of those in the small business community aren't hooked up to the Web, or don't read those publications," Kyser says. "I've heard some [small business owners] say the convention was no benefit to them."

Meanwhile, Kyser says the flood of big-budgeted parties taking place has amounted to big bucks for limousine companies, valet parking firms, West Side restaurants and anyone involved in corporate entertaining, since the convention has been flush with corporate sponsors wining and dining politicians and delegates.

For instance, El Cholo, a popular Mexican restaurant, catered three major parties this week, including an event at the Pacific Design Center that drew about 2,000 people and an event thrown by the New York Times.

Downtown restaurants, however, haven't seen their regular customers this week, since many employers in the area encouraged their employees to take the week off or to work from home. Even Mayor Richard Riordan's restaurant, the Pantry, a block from the Staples Center, has seen a drop in its regular customers. "Business is OK because what I lost in regular customers who are either staying away or took the week off I picked up in convention-goers," says the Pantry's manager Mario Frisan.

Yet, Carol Martinez, spokesman for the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau, believes businesses ultimately will benefit because of all the positive media attention the city has received in recent weeks.

"Everyone from the New York Times to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel to the Chicago Tribune have written positive travel stories about L.A., and named places downtown to eat or stay," Martinez says. "Sure, a lot of people are not coming to downtown L.A. this week, but everyone will be gone in a week, and so in the long run, these businesses will benefit."

Kyser feels more skeptical.

"It remains to be seen," he says, while police sirens ring in the background of his downtown office. "We need to get past today and tomorrow, then we'll find out how everything turned out."

Sandra Hernandez

Sandra Hernandez is a freelance journalist who regularly writes about immigration and Latino issues in Los Angeles. She is a former staff reporter with the Associated Press and the LA Weekly and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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