Coalition petitions to develop 400 block

Nonprofits wants new headquarters, condos and retail

The Community Foundation of San Benito County and its allies have launched an online petition to support its plans to build the nonprofit new offices on the 400 block of San Benito Street.

Started last Friday, the online petition is open to anyone with an Internet connection, even if they live outside city limits. It’s different than the petition spearheaded by Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, which needed to be signed by 10 percent of the city’s registered voters, to bring the 400 block sale decision before Hollister voters. That petition, submitted with approximately 2,465 signatures, is under review by the city’s election official.

Marketing Communications Coordinator for the Community Foundation Sharlene Van Rooy said that while the petition has no legal force like the one Velazquez submitted to the city last month, it’s there to show support for the nonprofit’s new headquarters.

Yet, when asked about the origins of the online petition, Van Rooy was quick to deny the Community Foundation had a hand in drafting it.

“We sent out an email letting our donors and that sort of people in our mailing list know about the petition, but we didn’t write the petition,” Van Rooy said by phone Monday. “We had nothing to do with putting it out there, but we’re in support of it of course.”

The point is a fine distinction. Executive board members from the Community Foundation, as well as the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, Hollister Downtown Association and the San Benito County Business Council, comprise the Restore the 400 Block coalition behind the online petition.

“The leadership of the organizations met over the last several weeks and developed their own campaign, including the petition, social media and other ways to demonstrate support,” said  San Benito County Business Council Executive Director Kristina Chavez-Wyatt Monday. “Basically, the goal is to express to the city council and their leadership staff that the work they’ve done over the years to restore this 400 block is absolutely the right direction.”

The business council believes current plans for the vacant 400 block, which also includes condominiums and commercial space, will encourage job creation and smart growth. It also demonstrates to the community and investors the area is open for business, she said.

“Where we’re coming from is: we want everyone to take a breath and look at the big picture of what this means for the past, present and future of our community as a whole,” Chavez-Wyatt said.

Originally comprised of of retail buildings, the 400 block of San Benito Street was left devastated by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Over the years, various ideas have been floated for the vacant space, including a cinema and performing arts complex.

None of the plans came close to fruition, until recently, when a proposed donation of $900,000 to put towards a new headquarters for the Community Foundation was pledged by local benefactors Randy and Rebecca Wolf.

Rebecca Wolf, who is vice chairwoman of the Community Foundation board of directors, said the development will help restore downtown Hollister.

“The Community Foundation looks forward to building our new philanthropic center as part of the 400 block to support all our local nonprofits and our community,” said Wolf in an email. “We will be sharing more information with our local news organizations soon.”

Pinnacle Strategy President and Chamber of Commerce Board Member Victor Gomez reached out to the Free Lance Tuesday and suggested holding this story, as the Restore the 400 Block coalition would be putting together a press conference in the coming days.

Chamber of Commerce CEO Juli Vieira said the chamber supported the 400 block development.

“The Chamber isn’t just about tourism, but economic development in our community also,” Vieira said by phone Monday. “We have some areas open downtown, but they’re all large. We have some small businesses that want to come into the downtown area. This would give them a chance to start.”

On August 4, Vieira sent out a Chamber newsletter that included links to the Restore the 400 Block petition and Facebook page.

“It’s the Chamber’s place to look out for the local business and nonprofit community, their members, and what should be good for the community as a whole,” Vieira said. “I don’t see this as political. It’s being made into a political agenda, but I don’t feel it’s political. It’s what’s good for downtown and for the economic vitality of the downtown area.”

Velazquez believes there is a conflict-of-interest behind this latest public relations move by the Community Foundation and its partners.

“What’s important here are groups that receive money from the Community Foundation are involved and groups that are financially supported by the city are also involved, that being the Chamber and Hollister Downtown Association,” said Velazquez.

The petition Velazquez submitted to the Hollister City Clerk last month for verification would compel the city council to either withdraw the current proposal, reconsider it or place it on an upcoming ballot for a community vote. The city owns the 400 block parcel.

The city is currently awaiting an opinion from the California Attorney General’s Office as to whether or not Velazquez’s petition would actually require council action. Velazquez has recused himself from all of the city’s 400 block decisions because he owns the neighboring Vault building.

The Free Lance is still waiting on signature verification from the City Clerk. San Benito County Assistant Clerk-Recorder-Registrar of Voters Angela Curro said she received the 400 block petition from the city on July 20. The petition has been signature checked and official results were submitted to City Clerk Tom Graves on July 27.

Curro explained the county registrar’s verification process.

“When a petition is filed with a city, they send it to the county clerk or registrar for signature verification only,” Curro said. “All the county does is report back what those results are.”

Petition signatures are checked against voter registration information. It starts with a random sample, Curro said.

If that sample fails, then every signature is checked.

Velazquez said he gathered an estimated 2,465 signatures, more than the 1,600 required for a referendum. As of Wednesday morning, The Restore the 400 Block coalition’s online petition gathered 199 signatures out of their goal of 3,000.

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