Friday, December 4, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 40

Santa Maria Sun / Letter To The Editor

The following article was posted on November 18th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 38

Why the Santa Barbara County Vintners' wine BID imploded

By Stephen Pepe, Lompoc

After two years, untold tens of thousands of dollars spent, scores of meetings with wineries, several press releases, a business improvement district (BID) website, four proposals, and a rejection by the Board of Supervisors staff, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association board at the end of October announced they were dropping the wine 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 Ynez, 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 BID’s refusal to contribute. 

The second mistake was that the Vintners board then selected Civitas to be its consultant for the wine BID. Civitas promotes the sale of its 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 in to the wine BID if approved by the Board of Supervisors, 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 members 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. 

Stephen Pepe

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