CALEXICO — A Santo Tomas Swap Meet spokesperson called a requirement to move merchandise out of sales stalls and have it stored in fireproof containers a “deal breaker” to reopening in Calexico.
To move forward, the requirement must be removed or modified from a months-old swap-meet ordinance, said Carlos Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, Calexico City Manager David Dale said the disputed requirement is key to public safety. The conditions that existed during a massive fire at the now-closed swap meet more than a year ago this month, when the requirement was not in place, could have proved deadly, he explained.
“There’s a concern for public safety here, and the fire shows that,” Dale said during an interview Dec. 22 after being told of the Santo Tomas spokesperson’s concern.
“Had this fire happened on a Thursday night, when vendors sleep in their stalls, they would have been killed,” Dale said, referring to the Dec. 8, 2018, blaze that broke out on a weekend night in a group of vendor stalls crammed with merchandise.
The city Fire Department ruled the cause was faulty electric wiring that ignited nearby stored materials.
Dale said rumors at the time of the fire were that during the weekdays some vendors slept in their stalls overnight to protect their merchandise from theft. That allegation had not been previously made.
“Luckily, the fire happened on a Saturday night,” Dale said.
Sticking Points Revealed
Santo Tomas spokesperson Carlos Gonzalez, son of the closed swap meet’s general manager, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, both members of the Martinez family that owns the site property, said the merchandise-storage issue is one of several being discussed with city representatives as all parties try to find ways to reopen the once-popular open-air marketplace.
It operated at 1102 V.V. Williams Avenue for about 45 years. The Martinez family decided to close it June 30 rather than address numerous alleged building and fire code violations.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez and representatives of some of the swap meet’s vendors met with Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge and City Council Member Morris Reisen on Dec. 19 to begin talks about what would be needed by Santo Tomas officials to reopen.
“In order to reopen Santo Tomas, certain ordinances would have to be revised. When the city administration drafted the new ordinances, we were not contacted to assist in providing guidance or clarification of business needs in this particular industry,” stated Carlos Gonzalez in a text message Dec. 22.
Gonzalez, who stated he was speaking on behalf of all of those present at the meeting last week aside from Hodge and Reisen, recently informed this newspaper he would be the official spokesperson for his father and the Martinez family going forward.
During lengthy interviews Dec. 21 and 22 that took place over the phone and via text message, Gonzalez stated Santo Tomas’ priorities to consider reopening. They include key pieces of the city ordinance governing the operation of swap meets in Calexico being revised.
He said he was specifically referring to one of 14 basic minimum standards of operation outlined in the ordinance that was passed unanimously by the council in September and enacted in October.
It reads: “During non-operating hours, all vendor merchandise, materials and property shall be stored in fully enclosed structures intended for that purpose. All structures used for storage shall be approved by the city’s Building Department and Fire Department prior to their use for storage … Permanent storage structures shall have concrete foundations. Acceptable alternatives to permanent storage structures include prefabricated storage units, metal containers and trucks. All merchandise shall be stored in an orderly manner that allows for proper clearances for entry of public safety personnel. … Structures that are used for storage shall have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security.”
Gonzalez stated the requirement makes it impossible to keep operational costs down. He stated to build the containers or structures would cost $2,000 to $3,000 a piece, costs that would be passed onto the vendors through increased stall rental costs. That would affect the profitability of Santo Tomas’ business model and affordability for vendors to operate.
Hodge, who recently said he and Reisen would be starting a special committee to clear the air and restore trust with Santo Tomas officials, said the merchandise issue did come up Dec. 19.
The mayor said it was among three central points discussed. They included the possibility of modifying the merchandise-storage requirement; expanding the timeline in which Santo Tomas officials could fix the alleged building and fire code violations against the property while being still able to open in order to generate some income; and investigating some sort of “self-inspection” model of operation.
Hodge said no promises were made and nothing was agreed to and that another meeting with Santo Tomas officials had yet to be scheduled. He did say Reisen and Assistant City Manager Miguel Figueroa were to meet Jan. 6 so Reisen could relay some of the Santo Tomas’ concerns to the city.
Reisen could not be reached for comment by deadline after numerous attempts since the Dec. 19 meeting.
Meanwhile, Dale on Dec. 22 said Las Palmas Swap Meet officials have no problem being able to adhere to the merchandise-storage requirement and if that requirement is a deal breaker for reopening Santo Tomas, “That’s their business decision.”
Dale added, “If they (Santo Tomas) don’t think being up to code is a legitimate business decision, then that’s their call.”
He said as long as that requirement is part of the ordinance, he will see that it is enforced.
Dale conceded the council members “are the bosses” and if the majority of the council opts to change the requirement, “so be it.”
Hodge said no one is saying that right now.
“I want to be clear. We’re taking it slow. We went (to the Dec. 19 meeting) in order to restore faith and trust with Santo Tomas … but no promises were made,” Hodge said. “In other words, we don’t want to give up.”
This story is featured in the Dec 26, 2019 e-Edition.