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Tourists, Military Patrons Help Business Stay Afloat Along Coast


The economy has tossed San Diego’s small businesses into rough waters this year and many expect that trend to continue in the year ahead, said the leaders of three coastal chambers of commerce.

The federal government’s financial bailout packages along with the slumping housing market, turmoil in the financial markets and high gas prices have led San Diegans and other beach visitors , from Oceanside in the north down through Interstate 5 communities to Imperial Beach , to cut back on spending. Fewer people enjoyed meals at area restaurants, shopped and visited the region’s attractions.

“We’re all affected by the economic climate,” said Todd Shallan, president of the Coronado Chamber of Commerce. “If someone says otherwise, they’re either in a unique service or lying.”

David Nydegger, chief executive of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce, echoed Shallan’s sentiments. “The economy is soft, but most of our members keep a positive attitude,” he said.

Jack Van Zandt, chairman of the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Board, finds that “small, good-quality businesses with steady, local clientele are OK right now.” Van Zandt expects that 2009 will not vary significantly from 2008.

The three chamber representatives remain cautiously optimistic about the region’s economic climate in the year ahead. But some business owners worry about their future.

Zofia Migdalska, owner of MZM Seacoast Bistro, an upscale establishment across from the Imperial Beach harbor art display and swimmers’ beach, said business has been down 30 percent since September, and down 25 percent in the last 18 months.

She attributes the sharp decline to the $700 billion U.S. economic bailout package approved in September, volatile gas prices and the media’s negative coverage of the state of the economy.

“People are running scared,” said Migdalska, who opened MZM in 2004.

She said that former regular customers and occasional guests who came from as far as Santa Barbara to taste her globally inspired cuisine have cut back on visits.

“Elderly and retired customers who have been hit by losses in their retirement funds are no longer traveling from Coronado, Bonita or Chula Vista to Imperial Beach,” she said. “One customer told me he pays twice as much for gas to drive to the restaurant than it costs for dinner.”

A waitress at The Wave Caf & #233;, a beachside eatery in Imperial Beach, claims that the restaurant continues to do well.

“We haven’t been hurt by the economic downturn at all and I don’t expect much change for 2009. We’re right by the beach, people get hungry,” said Lorie Bragg.

Mixed Outlook

Van Zandt said responses to an informal survey sent in mid-November to 220 Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce members to assess their current business climate and outlook for 2009 underscore the mixed opinions.

A few restaurant owners said they’re doing “as well as can be expected,” according to Van Zandt. Real estate professionals commented that sales were slow with properties lingering on the market longer, which was echoed by the other two Chamber of Commerce leaders.

Nydegger said one restaurant owner told him that this year’s sales were down 10 percent compared to 2007. He also said that membership at the chamber fell from 932 last November to 891 as of Nov. 19 with some Realtors and mortgage bankers changing careers.

On the upside, Nydegger expects the return of some 8,000 to 15,000 military personnel to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton from their deployments next spring will breathe new life into the Oceanside economy.

“They come back with money,” Nydegger said. This is expected to boost business at grocery stores, movie theaters, nightclubs and other local businesses.

In Coronado, which has three military bases, Shallan has been proactive to recruit locals and his military partners, and draw San Diegans living across the bridge to do their holiday shopping on the island.

On Oct. 20, the 400-member strong Coronado Chamber of Commerce sent out its first-ever holiday pamphlet to promote local businesses. In addition, for the three weeks prior to Christmas, the city of Coronado will offer free parking in its downtown district.

“We hope that many people will do their holiday shopping right here,” Shallan said.

Hoping For Upswing

His outlook for 2009: “No one knows where the bottom is, but people are hopeful that we will see an upswing.”

“We have not seen (any members) go out of business due to the economy, but that’s not to say it won’t happen next year,” he added.

Meanwhile, MZM owner Migdalska criticized the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce for not doing more to promote their beach town to the wider San Diego community.

“Downtown San Diego is 15 to 20 minutes away, but no one is tapping into the tourists coming from the cruises,” Migdalska said.

Van Zandt commented via e-mail on Migdalska’s charge that while he agrees there is a need for more advertising of their members, there is a lack of resources with monies being earmarked for commercial improvement projects in Imperial Beach.

Migdalska, however, isn’t one to go down without a fight.

“I’m down, but I’m not out,” she said. “If push comes to shove, I’m converting my restaurant to a ‘Depression time soup line.’ ”

Marion Webb is a freelance writer for the Business Journal.


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