In her bridal shop on Eastern Avenue, Yolanda Tabarez sat hunched over a sewing machine, basting ruffles onto a frothy pink gown. It was the last dress for a wedding order she had received in February, she said, and there was no prospect of more work until June.
Speaking quietly in Spanish, Tabarez said that business had been good for five years at the store--with as many as six orders a month from customers in several counties--until the Bicycle Club casino opened across the street in November. She has lost customers because they cannot find places to park, Tabarez said, and orders have dropped by 75%.
Since November, the Mexican mother of four has laid off two employees, lengthened her work hours and sold a station wagon and one of her industrial sewing machines to make ends meet.
"I don't know what to do now," Tabarez said, showing her savings account balance of $500 to a visitor. "If we sell, we eat, and if we don't sell, we don't eat. For weeks, we have not made a penny."
20 Merchants Concerned
Tabarez is not alone. A group of about 20 merchants, most of them Latinos with small stores on Eastern near the casino entrance, say their businesses have been seriously hurt by the parking problem. Club employees--there are 800--and customers not only park on the street in front of the stores, but they also "invade" private parking lots in back of businesses--24 hours a day, often for days at a time, the merchants said.
It is an ironic situation for the merchants, who had expected to gain customers from the club and awaited its opening with high hopes. But with the exception of a florist and a pawn shop dealer, they reported no additional business.
During a hotly contested campaign to legalize poker in the city three years ago, most of the merchants had supported the casino, encouraged by promoters' promises of "a host of local benefits" and "millions of dollars . . . for needed services."
And indeed, business is booming under the neon lights of the Las Vegas-style club, which grossed $1.7 million in February, paying $181,000 to the city in taxes.
By contrast, many of the stores on Eastern--including a bakery, hair salon, bookstore, cake decorating shop and two restaurants--do only enough business to sustain a small family on a very modest income, according to their owners. The merchants say city officials have ignored them because their businesses contribute only a fraction of what the club pays the city.
Councilman Marvin Graves has assured merchants that the city is "entirely sympathetic" to their situation.
"We are going to take steps to alleviate the parking situation as rapidly as we can," he said. "We're going to spend money. We've got to provide an additional parking area."
The merchants, however, are not impressed with the city's efforts to date.
Complained Luis Ortega, owner of Ofelia's Restaurant: The city "says, 'We get most of our money over here (at the casino). We don't have to worry about these little businesses over there.' "
Three years ago, Plaza Discount Furniture owner Ray Nitkin put a large sign on his roof urging voters to support the legalization of poker in the city. He still says the club "is the greatest thing that ever happened to this city"--and in the same breath says it is killing his business.
"Hey, I'm for the club," Nitkin said, "but they can't feed out of my pocket."
The merchants will take their complaints to the Traffic and Safety Commission tonight at City Hall, said City Manager Claude Booker. But most said they expected little help from the city.
Tabarez said she will not attend because, like several merchants on Eastern, she does not speak English. The city will not supply a translator because translations would unduly lengthen the proceedings, Booker said.
For a short-term solution to the parking problem, he said, the city may decrease the time limit on Eastern Avenue parking, even though ticketing has not reduced the problem in the past. The city may also build a municipal parking lot near the casino--a project that would take four months, Booker said.
Parking on Eastern is currently set at two hours maximum on weekdays and is not restricted on weekends, when the spillover from the casino is particularly harmful. But in spite of "very aggressive enforcement" of parking violations--as many as 87 citations on Eastern in February alone--it is clear that the violators "don't seem to care" about a $14 ticket, Booker said.
Increased Valet Parking
In the meantime, club officials said they have increased valet parking to avoid turning customers away.
The merchants, however, remain unconvinced.
"By now, they (city officials) should get their act together," Nitkin said. "Don't die us out by attrition and starvation. We're entitled to a decent shake."
The merchants are "not upset with the casino," said Fred Gonzalez, owner of the Gonzalez Bakery. "I want it to do good. . .. But we don't want to be swallowed up in their success. The way it stands now, I have no future. I've lost my (business) and haven't been able to recuperate."
To appease residents complaining of parking problems on side streets off Eastern, the city this week painted driveway curbs red, Booker said. The residents had said club employees and customers were blocking their driveways and leaving no available parking for visiting friends and relatives.
Club employees do not use a lot leased by the club in December next to City Hall (about a mile away), Booker said, because it was more convenient to park on Eastern. Club administrative director Bob Gilbert said the club has asked Caltrans for permission to build a high-rise parking structure for employees off the Long Beach Freeway. Gilbert was not optimistic, however, that Caltrans would agree.
In the meantime, Gonzalez said he has daily arguments with club employees and customers who try to park in front of his store. He has "easily lost 50%" of his business since the club opened--not because of competition from the bakery inside the club, but because of the lack of parking, Gonzalez said. To help take up the slack, he said, he stays open an extra two hours and no longer closes on Monday.
Up the street at the JV Printing Service, owner Jorge Ververa said he is looking for another location for his store. His walk-in business had been cut by half because of the parking crunch, Ververa said.
Nearby, at Frances' Cake Decorating Supplies, co-owner Mary Huntales complained that business at Christmas--usually the busiest season of the year--was down by half because customers had no place to park.
And at California Stereo, owner Maria Carrizo said in Spanish that her former customers often call to tell her, "I came by, but I couldn't find a parking place."
"We live on pennies," Carrizo said. "I'm going to have to close--but where will I go?"
Wants to Relocate
Tabarez, a mother of four teen-age children, faces the same question, and is trying to borrow $3,000 to relocate her business. Her $350 rent is due April 1 and there is no money to pay her bills, she said.
For his part, Gonzalez has settled in for the long haul. Every day he props up a large sign in front of his store that reads, "Bakery Parking." That done, he waits on customers inside, liberally extending credit behind a case of neatly piled Mexican bread, cookies and sweet rolls.
"Little businesses like this, we struggle to make a life," Gonzalez said. "Then they bring us the burden of progress which we have to face. We have no sympathy of no one. We're just in the way."