By Jeremy Ogul
Oktoberfest in La Mesa will look somewhat different this fall: The La Mesa Village Merchants Association has applied to host a significantly smaller event, and the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce has splintered off to host its own event at Grossmont Center later in October.
The future of Oktoberfest has been in doubt since city staff announced earlier this year that the Merchants Association still owed the city nearly $34,000 for the cost of police, firefighters, traffic control, street cleaning, electrical inspection and other public services from last year’s event. The City Council in May reaffirmed its position that the city should not grant event permits to any group that owes an outstanding balance.
Since that time, the Merchants Association has been meeting with city staff to work out a compromise.
“They’ve been great with us,” Merchants Association President Arlene Moore said of the city staff. “They understand where the problem is and they’ve tried to come up with a solution for the event instead of just saying, ‘Too bad.’”
The proposal now is to host a smaller event over fewer days and to fully pay off the balance owed to the city by September. In addition, city staff are recommending the Merchants Association make a 25 percent deposit, or $27,000, to the city by Sept. 15. The City Council will decide on Tuesday, July 28, whether to accept that deal.
Aside from the absence of the Chamber of Commerce, the biggest change is that the festival will be limited to the part of the village east of Spring Street. In the past, the festival has spread across La Mesa Boulevard both east and west of Spring Street. The festival will be held only on Friday, Oct. 2, and Saturday, Oct. 3, this year, unlike the three-day festivals of yesteryear.
“This is the only viable solution to keep the event alive,” Moore said.
The city incurred approximately $85,000 in direct costs at Oktoberfest last year. With the proposed changes, the city estimates a total of $68,686 in direct costs this year — a reduction of approximately 19 percent.
Moore said the bill from last year’s event went unpaid because costs were much higher than anticipated. The Merchants Association uses the proceeds from Oktoberfest to fund the other annual community events in the village, including Christmas in the Village, the Antique Street Fair and a summer car show. The association would have had to cancel last year’s Christmas in the Village event, which costs about $35,000 to put on, to pay off the Oktoberfest bill on time, Moore said. That was not something they wanted to do, given how important it has become to the community and to the business owners, who have been struggling to attract customers while major construction is underway on downtown streets.
“In hindsight, we probably should have canceled that event and paid the city,” Moore said.
La Mesa Chamber of Commerce CEO Mary England suggested in May that if the Merchants Association could not pay the bill, a professional event promoter could come in and host its own event. Moore said no promoter has come forward because the event only pencils out when it is run largely by volunteers.
“When you really look at the revenues brought in, the costs that are involved with putting on the event, the fees and everything, there is about $30,000 to $40,000 left,” Moore said. “If a company paid professionals to do all these things that volunteers are doing, I don’t believe there would be anything left.”
Moore is optimistic that the new, smaller Oktoberfest will work out for both the Merchants Association and the city, especially once the disruption of all the construction downtown is complete.
Meanwhile, the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce has partnered with Grossmont Center to host an alternative event in the parking lot adjacent to Macy’s and Hooley’s on October 16 and 17.
“We want to start out small, just like we did for other events, and then grow,” Chamber CEO Mary England said. “We believe that we can build this into something really fabulous for the residents and the citizens in the region, which gives them an additional opportunity for entertainment in La Mesa. It also helps Grossmont become a destination.”
England pointed to numerous other perks of hosting a festival at Grossmont Center. The center has ample parking and a flat surface that is not obstructed by curbs, parking meters or the other obstacles downtown. The ability to have a nighttime party without disturbing nearby residents with noise, crowds, traffic or street closures is another advantage of the Chamber’s new event location.
The Chamber has not settled on a name for the new event yet, but England made clear that the new event will not claim to be the same annual La Mesa Oktoberfest. It will, however, feature a family-friendly beer garden, food vendors, sponsor tables and activities for children.
“I think we’re charting a new course here,” she said.
—Write to Jeremy Ogul at email@example.com.