Castro merchants to split grant money for two pop-ups after row

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday February 3, 2023
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People walk past the old Levi's space at 525 Castro Street Friday, February 3. A pop-up is now planned for the storefront. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
People walk past the old Levi's space at 525 Castro Street Friday, February 3. A pop-up is now planned for the storefront. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

A public squabble about how to spend $100,000 that's been made available to the Castro Merchants Association by the city to encourage pop-ups in shuttered storefronts seems to have been resolved by its board of directors on Friday.

The board decided to give $50,000 to a project, Welcome Castro, that will open at 525 Castro Street and is being spearheaded by Robert Emmons, a gay man who is the owner of SF Mercantile. He also operates Welcome Haight and Ashbury, a visitors' center and store in the city's famed Haight neighborhood that he now plans to replicate in the just as famous LGBTQ Castro district.

The remaining $50,000 will be spent on another pop-up, according to Terry Beswick, a gay man on the merchant association board. Initially, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Beswick proposed that Emmons be the sole pop-up, with the rest of the money going to marketing.

He went before the merchants' February 2 membership meeting with his proposal for the pop-up visitor center in the former Levi's store at 525 Castro Street. That faced pushback from Jenn Meyer, a straight ally who is the owner of Local Take on 18th Street and president of the Castro Street Fair board of directors.

Terrance Alan, a gay man who is president of the Castro Merchants Association, said Thursday that an ad hoc committee would determine what to do with the grant, which is from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

However, as of Friday, the ad hoc committee's new job will be finding a second grantee.

"I think it's wonderful," Emmons said. "I'm very excited about this grant being able to be used to help other businesses. On my end, we will give 50% of the sales [back to the association] so that we can net $50,000, if not more than $50,000, to help businesses get set up. I'm hoping they do a lot more sustainable pop-ups."

Emmons will be giving 50% of his net sales to the association for 10 months, he said.

When reached for comment Friday, Meyer — who said she would like to be on the ad hoc committee to decide the fate of the money — said this was news to her when she heard about the compromise from a reporter.

"This is how it goes and this is why people are upset," Meyer lamented. "I'm happy to find out more info and let you know. They don't tell anybody anything."

Alan told the B.A.R. that the committee did meet.

"That's how our governance is set up," he said. "The committee did meet online and we decided to go forward."

When asked if Meyer was informed or part of the committee, Alan said, "I will check. I know she's been spoken to a great deal" and that perhaps something wasn't communicated to her.

Beswick told the B.A.R. that the process was "painful at times."

"In the end we have come up with a solution that addresses everyone's concerns and leverages the city funds to make a real difference," he stated. "I hope we can help activate many more vacant storefronts in this way."

Beswick told the B.A.R., after the initial publication of this report, the $50,000 returned by Emmons will go toward marketing the pop-up program, as well as "advertising, historic displays, admin support for the CBD's 'I'm available' campaign, bookkeeping, [and] fees." He said that at no point was Emmons going to get all $100,000 for Welcome Castro business costs only.

Sparks flew at merchants' meeting

The row over the temporary tenant for a vacant space on the 500 block of Castro Street became public at the meeting for members of the Castro business association Thursday morning — just as many in the LGBTQ enclave worry about a preponderance of empty storefronts. Recently joining the list of shuttered businesses in the neighborhood were longtime bar and restaurant Harvey's and, just a block away, El Capitan Taqueria.

Beswick had connected Emmons with the grant. The merchants had to agree on an entrepreneur to be awarded the grant, which as the B.A.R. first reported last year Beswick had helped secure.

Instead of voting on that at the February 2 meeting, Alan agreed to set up a committee to look into whether to give the full grant to Emmons after Meyer argued the money should be divided among multiple potential pop-ups, instead of granted to just one. She was also concerned Emmons' Castro location would be "just a gift store."

Emmons said he wants to do something similar for the Castro as he's done for the Haight — a gift shop with elements of a welcome center.

"It's been quite successful and that's what I see doing here in the Castro," Emmons told the merchants. "Having a place with a sense of the history of the Castro like HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] used to do [at the former location of Harvey Milk's camera store, also on the 500 block of Castro Street]."

Emmons said he is "in touch with 40 or so LGBTQ vendors who aren't currently represented in any store" in the neighborhood to make merchandise.

Meyer said Thursday that she is "fully supportive of the idea of a welcome center" but that Emmons' Haight location doesn't look like a welcome center. "It looks like a gift store. How do we make it not just a place to buy gifts? I think with $100,000 we have a big opportunity to reactivate vacant storefronts for more than one businessperson," she said.

The old Pottery Barn space at Market and Castro streets was also considered for Emmons' welcome center concept; and though the rent negotiated from the landlord was the same rate as when the Matt Haney for Assembly campaign rented it last year, the deal to locate there fell through "for a number of reasons I'm not going to get into," Beswick said.

Emmons told the B.A.R. after the merchants' meeting that the Pottery Barn space (at 2390 Market Street) was too intimidating.

A would-be business partner, Lauro González, founder of the Mission's Artyhood, backed out of the project when that proposal did not work out. González did not respond to a request for comment.

Emmons — who said he started his business initially at his home in the Castro — told the B.A.R. that the Thursday meeting had been "disheartening."

"People can be shortsighted, sometimes, of the big picture," he said. "All ships rise with the tide. The more the neighborhood is vibrant, the more it helps all businesses in the neighborhood."

Beswick was similarly frustrated.

"We have a vacant storefront problem in the Castro," Beswick said during the meeting. "We have an LGBTQ business owner who wants to open in the Castro. The city created this grant opportunity to activate vacant storefronts with a pop-up business. ... The intention is to create a sustainable business that would activate the storefront for a number of years."

Meyer asked why Emmons wants grant money from the merchants to open a business. "Why wouldn't you just open?" she asked.

Emmons replied the grant is how he got involved in the first place.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the general manager of Cliff's Variety on the 400 block of Castro Street, reminded the association members that votes had to be announced in advance of the meeting. Alan said Thursday's action was going to be an informal poll of the members, not a vote.

Beswick told the B.A.R. after the meeting that "we all love her [Meyer's] shop, but it's weird that she won't support this gay guy opening a gay business in the gay Castro that will in turn help promote other businesses. The grant is intended to incentivize businesses to fill vacant storefronts. So why not this one?"

Beswick added that while "it's a shame that our proposed pop-up tenants pulled out [of considering the Pottery Barn site] because of a couple loud voices ... maybe they did us a favor, as I think the Welcome Castro will be more sustainable in the Levi's space after the grant has ended."

Meyer told the B.A.R. that she feels "no one really knows what the plan is" for Emmons' business.

"I would love to have a discussion about that," she said. "A lot of questions raised haven't been answered. I'm sure he's [Beswick] the one saying my opposition is based on competition, but these decisions cannot be made by one person."

Updated, 2/3/23: This article has been updated with additional information from Terry Beswick.

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