Editorial: Eliminate San Juan’s franchise ban

A new gas station in San Juan Bautista was first proposed in February 2010 for the parking lot on the Windmill Market.

San Juan Bautista City Manager Roger Grimsley is wise to support lifting the ban against chain businesses, and he also happens to be the right man for the job of eliminating it.  The historic city tucked along the Highway 156 corridor established a ban in December 2002 as an urgency ordinance, while San Juan officials renewed it three times since then, with a minor adjustment in the latest version of the law allowing “formula” businesses only if they fulfill unmet needs among existing businesses.

That, of course, rules out a vast majority of franchise-based models – which should be embraced into the economic and historic culture of San Juan.  Without allowing such businesses – Subway and Taco Bell have expressed interest in recent years – the city is putting an enormous restriction on its own economy and sending a message to developers and tourists that they should keep on driving to the next stop along their way.

That is the wrong message, especially for a place that relies so heavily on outside foot traffic, a city that has built its tradition, its livelihood, its brand on the city’s foundation as a mission town with 19th century charm and an abundance of fine restaurants and quirky shops.

Not too long after the most recent revision to the city’s ordinance banning most chain businesses, city leaders learned the hard way – nothing lasts forever, particularly when it comes to consumers’ discretionary dollars.  San Juan Bautista has taken a bigger relative hit than most communities due to the nature of its business environment and its focus on novelties and dining. So anything to restrict opportunities for sustained growth, anything to restrict opportunities for additional revenue, especially when it is wholly feasible to incorporate such businesses without tainting the town’s historic charm, makes no sense. As Grimsley stated, city officials can work to ensure the architecture involved with such businesses does not conflict with the surrounding structures.  

All city leaders have to do is look around at the continued signs of difficult economic times locally, at the escalated frequency of business closings, of restaurants shutting down, if they are looking for justification on nixing the law.

Adding chain businesses to the mix won’t completely solve the city’s vast misfortune. But with an increasing number of travelers using GPS and other technology to find their way around – which points them to their favorite stores – opening the door to “formula” shops would add a certain sense of familiarity for tourists while also adding a spark for the economy as a whole and the existing businesses in San Juan.  It is short sighted to rule out businesses because of their name, because of a pretentious reasoning that pits the town’s core traditionalists against corporate America without a reason outside of simply doing it. It is short sighted to shun the additional revenue that is needed if San Juan Bautista will ever survive economically and maintain its standing as a tourist draw.

The timing is right for Grimsley, a savvy businessman in his own right, to step forward and open the city’s doors to chain merchants.

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