Saturday, October 20 , 2018, 8:50 am | Fair 55º

 
 
 
 

Eastside Restaurant Thrust into Business Improvement District Debate

A popular Eastside Mexican restaurant has become a battleground for both sides of the debate over a proposed Eastside Business Improvement District in Santa Barbara.

Taqueria El Bajio at 129 N. Milpas St. has been the site of two protests over three days’ time — the first of which was organized Sunday by local activist group PODER (People Organizing for the Defense of Equal Rights) and involved waving signs and intimidating a customer, according to responding Santa Barbara police officers.

Police were twice called to the scene within a 30-minute period. 

The second served as a sort of “anti-protest,” when several city leaders and Milpas Community Association supporters gathered Tuesday night for an “eat-in” at El Bajio to show the owner some love.

According to both sides, the eatery was targeted because longtime proprietor Santos Guzman supports the proposed Eastside Business Improvement District, which would assess businesses along the Milpas Street corridor and Eastside commercial/industrial area to pay for marketing and promotion services, events, security and more.

The city of Santa Barbara would collect the EBID fees, and the nonprofit improvement district would decide how to spend funds on services the city doesn’t already cover.

The MCA has been reaching out to businesses since late 2014 to gather signatures in support of the EBID — a practice PODER equated to harassment in a statement issued after Sunday's protest.

The activist group accused Guzman of working against the wishes of the majority of Latino-owned businesses on Milpas Street.

“PODER organized a protest in an effort to focus attention on the dangers of the Milpas Community Association (MCA) and its proposed gentrification plans for the Eastside,” the group said in a statement. “The MCA’s Eastside business improvement district (E-BID) plan will make Milpas Street into a new State Street that will inevitably increase commercial and residential rents and drive out more locals from Santa Barbara.  

“The people most at risk are the residents and local business owners who would not be able to pay the increased fees and taxes since commercial and housing rents will inevitably rise if the E-BID is approved by city council.”

Although the issue won’t go before the City Council for approval until April at the earliest, about 25 PODER protesters picketed in front of El Bajio Sunday afternoon.

Sgt. Riley Harwood said restaurant employees called police because protesters were chanting and scaring customers, telling employees they were “sellouts.”

The first officers told protesters to stay out of the street, Harwood said, and the second group of responding officers warned the group not to block the restaurant entrance, staying until the protesters dispersed.

“An officer spoke to a customer that felt intimidated,” he said. “It sounded like these protesters were somewhat confrontational.”

City Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said he met at El Bajio Tuesday to support the business, the MCA and the proposed EBID.

“Certainly, any business ought to be able to conduct business without being harassed about what their political choices might be,” Hotchkiss said.

Mayor Helene Schneider, Mayor Pro Tempore Gregg Hart and councilmen Bendy White, Dale Francisco and Randy Rowse joined him, and councilwoman Cathy Murillo stopped by later that night.

Also in attendance was MCA executive director Sharon Byrne, who lauded Guzman as a Milpas community supporter spearheading efforts to buy Christmas street lights and to put a Christmas tree in the nearby roundabout.

“PODER called him a traitor to the Latino community,” Byrne said. “It wasn’t business owners protesting, it was young kids. It’s one thing to disagree … this kind of stuff is just really crossing the line.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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