Why the Vintners Wine BID Imploded
By Stephen Pepe of Clos Pepe Vineyards
After two years, untold tens of thousands of dollars spent, scores of meetings with wineries, several press releases, a BID website, four proposals and a rejection by the Board of Supervisors (BOS) staff, the Vintners’ Board at the end of October announced they were dropping the Wine Business Improvement District (BID). How did the Vintners’ Board get it so wrong?
The answer seems simple -- a lack of transparency and a failure to be inclusive.
The Vintners’ Board persuaded the Santa Maria, Santa Ynes and Santa Barbara Tourism BIDS and others to fund a “feasibility study” for the Wine BID. The first sign of trouble, which the Vintners’ Board ignored, was the Lompoc Tourism BIDs refusal to contribute.
The second mistake was that the Vintners’ Board then selected CIVITAS to be their consultant for the Wine BID. CIVITAS promotes the sale of their wine BID services and was hardly an independent judge of feasibility, plus there was no wine BID in California for guidance. They had a product to sell and salespersons are not the most reliable source for an impartial and independent judgment.
The third and most important mistake was that there was no feasibility study. In response to my request for a copy of the feasibility study the Vintners’ Executive Director emailed me:
“The Santa Barbara Vintners does not have access to the information used to determine the
feasibility of the project. That information is confidential, and Civitas will not share that information with anyone except for the County.”
Would a public feasibility study have made a difference? You bet. The purpose of a feasibility study is to expose any problems or issues with a project before you spend a lot of time, money and effort. A valid feasibility study by an independent organization would have conducted interviews with the major stakeholders- wineries, consumers and elected officials. These interviews would have found that more Santa Barbara wineries opposed than supported the Wine BID, that some consumers who would be taxed for the Vintners’ marketing budget would complain, that elected city officials like the Lompoc City Council would not opt into the Wine BID if approved by the BOS and most importantly, that the Wine BID had three major legal infirmities – using the consumer sales assessments to pay for wholesale sales marketing, not requiring a vote for what was a sales tax and failing to conform to the California Constitution.
The Vintners’ Board’s failure to obtain and publish an independent feasibility study meant it was flying blind and it was not aware that the Wine BID had serious issues. Once opposition surfaced, the Vintners’ Board made another fatal decision, they did not reach out and include the critics, but instead referred to them as a “minority,” “splinter group,” “out of touch” and “ignorant.” Unfortunately, the result was predictable -- a seriously flawed project imploded. The light of transparency and inclusion can be harsh and unpleasant, but it would have avoided this public fiasco.
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