Castro merchants cry foul over Super Bowl plans
by Matthew S. Bajko
There is growing concern among Castro merchants that next year's Super Bowl 50 celebrations will be a bust for their businesses due to the decision not to run the city's historic F-Line streetcars along upper Market Street.
Instead, transit officials plan to run buses on that portion of the route between the Castro and the Embarcadero, where a free fan village will be staged, during the week leading up to the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7.
At their monthly meeting last week, the Castro Merchants business association accused organizers with the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee and city officials of fumbling the transportation plans. Without the unique public transit system, considered a "museum in motion," running its normal route, merchants fear tourists will not make their way to the gayborhood.
"The tourists enjoy this. The tourists want this experience," said Miguel Lopez, co-owner of clothing store Sui Generis, which has two retail locations on upper Market Street. "They are not going to take the buses here; they are going to go somewhere else. This neighborhood will suffer a lot."
Added Local Take co-owner Jenn Meyer, "The only reason people come here is to ride on the historic streetcar."
The transit plan calls into question the local Super Bowl organizers' pledge that next year's event will be the most LGBT inclusive ever, Daniel Bergerac, president of the merchant group, told the Bay Area Reporter .
"LGBT-friendly to who? The whole thing is very disappointing," said Bergerac.
The Super Bowl is benefiting half-a-dozen local LGBT-owned businesses that have taken advantage of the local host committee's diversity contract program, which aims to utilize small businesses whose ownership is majority LGBT. (See related story.)
But to date, Bergerac said he had not heard of any business located in the Castro that will directly benefit from the Super Bowl. No one from the Super Bowl organizing committee has contacted Castro gay sports bar Hi-Tops about hosting special events related to the game.
"We haven't been approached by anyone with the Super Bowl, but we are very excited about it," co-owner Jesse Woodward told the B.A.R.
Woodward said he doubts that weekday visitors to the Super Bowl fan village would be interested in also venturing up to the Castro to eat or drink. It is more likely, he said, that those coming to the city during the weekend of the Super Bowl would.
"We are planning to do some things; it is definitely an opportunity to have some events," he said.
Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, told the B.A.R. this week that the organizers would reach out to Hi-Tops as part of their efforts to ensure the neighborhood benefits from the sporting event.
"We want activity and buzz all over San Francisco. There is no way we are going to let the Castro be overlooked," he said. "It is a destination for our tourists and we are going to make sure we do everything to bring visitors there."
Security behind transit plans
The F-Line trains need to be suspended for security reasons, Stephanie Martin, vice president of marketing and communications for the Super Bowl 50 host committee, said at the Castro Merchants meeting.
"There will be bag checks and 24/7 security" at the fan village, she said. "It will be a secure footprint for people coming in and out."
She also informed the merchants group that the village is purposefully being designed without food or drink offerings to encourage people to patronize local businesses. Volunteers staffing the fan village will be given information, she added, "to encourage people to shop locally."
Candace Sue, director of communications and marketing at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, noted during the meeting that in addition to the buses being deployed to service the F-Line route, the transit agency also plans to increase the number of trains running in the subway along Market Street. Additional service will also be added during off-peak hours.
And all work to upgrade the system will be suspended during Super Bowl Week, said Sue, meaning the subway system will not close early as it has been this fall.
"You will see additional service to get around all the people who will be in town," said Sue.
To accommodate the weekday morning commutes, the fan village will not open until later in the morning those days, noted Sue.
"It will allow us to run more shuttle service between West Portal and downtown and that service goes later," she said.
Nonetheless, many merchants at the meeting verbalized their ire at the plans, which Bergerac dismissed as "very pie in the sky to me."
The decision to mothball the F-Line streetcar fleet along the upper Market Street portion of the route – the historic vehicles will continue to run along the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf – is counter to San Francisco's touting itself as a "transit-first city," added Bergerac, who owns Mudpuppy's Tub and Scrub on Castro Street.
A good portion of the million-plus people expected to come to San Francisco for Super Bowl Week, which will officially kick off Sunday, January 30, would be interested in visiting the Castro, suggested Bergerac, "especially if there was something fun to travel here on."
Asked about the merchants' complaints about the Super Bowl transit plan, gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener told the B.A.R. last week that he planned to meet with them in order to address their concerns.
"Obviously, we want to make sure the Castro is well connected to the Super Bowl festival so people can easily come to the Castro to eat and drink and shop. That is a high priority," said Wiener. "Getting to the Castro from the festival between the subway and the F-Line replacement buses will not be hard. There is good transit connectivity between the Castro and the festival."
Nonetheless, Wiener said he wanted to "sit down with the merchants to understand in depth what their concerns are to make sure we are addressing the neighborhood's needs."
Ad campaign requested
In response to the complaints by the Castro Merchants, which this week sent letters outlining its concerns to the supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee, the mayor's Office of Workforce and Economic Development was scheduled to meet with leaders of the group Wednesday afternoon.
The mayoral office is now working with the Golden Gate Business Association, the city's LGBT chamber of commerce, and the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee to devise an advertising campaign to encourage tourists to visit the Castro.
There are also plans to hold a "mini-summit" with various transportation entities, such as Uber, Lyft, and taxi cab companies, to coordinate increased service between the Castro and the Super Bowl fan village.
GGBA member Paul Pendergast, a local consultant, told the B.A.R. that $30,000 to $40,000 would need to be raised to ensure any Castro-centered marketing push was effective. It would include advertising in the local gay papers as well as on Muni buses and in special guides being printed for Super Bowl visitors.
"The focus of the ad campaign would be to drive visitors/tourists/attendees to the SB 50 to the historic Castro to shop and dine," Pendergast wrote in an email. "The value of the ad campaign is still in development. We will be getting pro-bono creative services, we'll push to get as much free advertising as possible and then we'll have to do fundraising."
He added that those involved would "push this very hard. It'll be exciting but a lot of heavy lifting but that's what the situation calls for so that we have even better LGBT inclusion to SB 50."
Bergerac told the B.A.R. this week that the advertising offer "is a very nice olive branch" and that he "is interested to see what they have in store."
Yet he continued to maintain that the transit plans would have a negative impact on Castro businesses.
"I don't think anything will replace the historic F-Line streetcars in terms of bringing tourists up here," said Bergerac.
With people turning to short-term rental sites like Airbnb to find accommodations during the Super Bowl, out-of-town guests are expected to stay in or near the Castro.
"Any time you bring that many people into the city, even if the festival is in one part of the city, other neighborhoods, particularly destination neighborhoods like the Castro, will see a bump. It is not going to be a tidal wave coming in," said Wiener. "There is going to be some benefit in the Castro, even though it is not going to be revolutionary."