Castro merchants members squabble over grant money for pop-up store

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday February 2, 2023
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Castro Merchants Association board member Terry Beswick, right, and Robert Emmons, center, discussed a proposal for Emmons to open a pop-up store in the Castro at the merchants' February 2 meeting. Photo: John Ferrannini
Castro Merchants Association board member Terry Beswick, right, and Robert Emmons, center, discussed a proposal for Emmons to open a pop-up store in the Castro at the merchants' February 2 meeting. Photo: John Ferrannini

Members of the Castro Merchants Association are wrestling among themselves about how to spend $100,000 that's been made available to them by the city to encourage pop-ups in shuttered storefronts. Meanwhile, another initiative to lease out vacant retail spaces dotting the Castro's commercial corridors rolled out this week.

The row over a temporary tenant for a vacant space on the 500 block of Castro Street became public at the members' meeting Thursday morning — just as many in the LGBTQ enclave worry about a preponderance of empty storefronts, which was recently joined by longtime bar and restaurant Harvey's and, just a block away, El Capitan Taqueria.

Robert Emmons, a gay man who is the owner of SF Mercantile and Welcome Haight and Ashbury in the Haight, came to the meeting with a proposal for a pop-up visitor center in the former Levi's space on the 500 block of Castro Street.

Terry Beswick, a gay man on the merchant association's board, had connected Emmons with the vacant storefront activation grant from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. The merchants have to agree on an entrepreneur to be awarded the grant, which as the Bay Area Reporter first reported last year Beswick had helped secure.

Instead of voting on that at the February 2 meeting, however, gay Castro Merchants President Terrance Alan agreed to set up a committee to look into whether to give the grant to Emmons after 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, said she thinks the money should be divided among multiple potential pop-ups, instead of granted to 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. He also pledged to create a guide to neighboring businesses, and donate 50% of his net proceeds for the next 10 months to the merchants association.

Meyer said 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; 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 Bay Area Reporter after the 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 Thursday.

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

Neither a vote nor a poll ended up taking place. Alan said any member of the association who wants to be on the committee to make the final decision can contact him at [email protected], and that at a future date the committee will look at the Levi's space.

"If you don't volunteer, you don't have a voice," he said.

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."

Meyer said she definitely plans to be on the committee Alan announced, which she said she proposed initially in the past. She added that "subsidizing a gift shop" might not be the best choice for the association.

"Why is he [Beswick] so set on this one thing?" she asked. "I think he is so set on this one idea. My question would be why is he so opposed to other people participating in the conversation."

As for Beswick's questioning why Meyer is opposing a gay-owned new business in the neighborhood, Meyer told the B.A.R. "By even printing something like that you're just inciting it. It's absolutely ridiculous. His language is inflammatory. Whatever. I'm not going to say anything more."

'I'm Available' campaign

In related news, Alan and lesbian Castro Community Benefit District head Andrea Aiello have launched a new "I'm Available" campaign to tell business owners the finer points of coming to the neighborhood, according to a news release from the CBD on Thursday. Though Alan and Aiello were both present, this was not mentioned during the merchants' meeting.

Beswick had told the B.A.R. in the fall

about the planned promotion to market empty storefronts in the LGBTQ district. Posters featuring an anthropomorphic cartoon character of a building with purse and black high-heeled boots went up this week on the windows of a number of vacant spaces, including at the shuttered Harvey's space and a smaller retail space adjacent to it on the 500 block of Castro Street.

The campaign's page on the CBD's website "provides a convenient one stop shop for anyone looking to open a business in the neighborhood," the CBD stated. This includes a map of commercial, ground-floor vacancies, and information on the city departments that help entrepreneurs.

"Just having all the information in one place is very helpful for a new entrepreneur," Aiello stated. "Last week, I received a call from someone interested in opening a shop on Castro Street. I referred him to our I'm Available page and his response was, 'Thank you! This is really great, very helpful!!'"

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