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Sign of the times

Jeff Munson

Albertsons Supermarket’s announcement this week that it will close its South Lake Tahoe store in August and displace 62 employees has not only prompted strong reaction from the business community, but from the store manager himself.

Mike Patton, who took the helm of the Albertsons store three years ago, said the store’s loss of profits can’t be pinned down to one thing, but said that collectively there were many factors, including strict city codes when it sought a permanent sign on Highway 50 to attract customers.

It took the store two years before the city approved a lighted sign at Highway 50, which Patton said was needed to attract business at night. The store is located off the highway at the intersection of Al Tahoe Boulevard.

“We went back and forth with the city to get the sign,” Patton said. “When you don’t have a lit sign, customers won’t know you’re there when they drive by at night.”

Patton took aim at the city that he described as being “difficult to work with” during a time when large and small businesses are suffering the effects of an ebbing middle class who are leaving because Tahoe has become unaffordable to live.

“If you drive up and down the street it’s very telling,” Patton said. “There are a lot of businesses that have gone out of business. If you take that, and factor in the price of fuel, less people coming to the lake and more people moving off hill – you’ll see that all these things don’t pay the bills.”

The city has taken some initial steps to target businesses and to make South Lake Tahoe business-friendly. Last year it hired an economic development coordinator. The position was created after the sign issue at Albertsons had been resolved.

The city’s community development director, who is in charge of sign issues, was unavailable for comment.

City manager David Jinkens said he was not familiar with the Albertsons sign processing problem and wished that he had known about it and the amount of time it took for Albertsons to get a permanent sign through.

“I am sorry to see them go. City government wants business to prosper. We want to retain business, see them grow and find new businesses that the community wants here,” Jinkens said.

While many in the business community have complained about Tahoe Regional Planning Agency-spawned rules that restrict banners and sandwich boards, the issue over the processing time of permanent signs as such as the one requested by Albertsons is nothing new.

For Patton, two years could have made a difference on his books.

“What we wanted wasn’t hokey. We are a professional company. We put up a professional sign. It’s nothing new to Tahoe businesses who want to put up signs. They know the process is lengthy and comes with a lot of red tape. I just don’t think it needs to take two years to get it done.”

Jinkens said the issue is alarming to him and wants to know directly from the business community which city policies are considered onerous and detrimental to business.

“It would be most helpful for us to know of outdated city codes so that they can be brought to the City Council for review and possible change to the extent that we have the authority to change them,” Jinkens said.

The loss of Albertsons reflects a major change in the South Shore business climate, said Duane Wallace, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

“The case with Albertsons is something that will continue and multiply until we can get some of these regulations that stifle business – and that don’t have anything to do with the environment – off the backs of business,” Wallace said.

He said the chamber has begun to address issues that merchants say are affecting their bottom lines and will use the Albertsons issue as an example of how regulations are taking away good paying jobs from the community.

“We have selected specific code ordinances on housing and very soon on transportation, that says this is exactly what needs to be changed so the regulatory foot can be removed from the throat of large and small businesses,” Wallace said.

Meanwhile, the loss of the Albertsons as an anchor store – and the possibility that it will remain vacant for a while – could be detrimental to stores with the shopping center.

The manager of Rite Aid, the second-largest store in the complex would not comment on the loss, referring the Tribune to its corporate office.

Directly across the street from Albertsons, the owner of Cork and More, a specialty store that sells wine, gift and gourmet groceries, says the closure will likely have an impact.

“I’m sure it won’t do anyone in the shopping center any good,” said Jim Warlow, who has been at the Al Tahoe site for 22 years. “It is the anchor tenant. They are a large brand name. The small guys rely on that visibility.”

But whatever the downside is, there’s got to be an upside, Warlow added. The store already has a strong customer base. The loss of the anchor could provide a means to creatively go after more niche shoppers, he said.


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