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Amidst a budget crisis, the city is losing its shirt in the antiques business 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2009
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Last August, Amy Brown, director of San Francisco's real estate division, stood before a Board of Supervisors committee and made the kind of promise that gets elected officials' attention in a time of budget crisis. Should supervisors authorize her department to take over the three-day-a-week antiques market on United Nations Plaza near City Hall, Brown said, the operation would provide the city $400,000 to $500,000 per year in revenue. Profits from renting the plaza to several dozen vendors could help offset the million dollars a year the city spends cleaning up the area, she said.

Sounds nice. But there was a problem. Mary Millman, the Berkeley resident who had created and managed the market over the previous decade, said she'd never brought in more than $100,000 per year in gross revenue. Nevertheless, supervisors agreed to let Brown's henchmen give Millman the boot, revoking her permit to run a market in the area based on a dispute over the timeliness of her rent payments.

Almost 10 months have passed since the real estate division — an obscure corner of the city bureaucracy that manages municipal properties — made its power play on U.N. Plaza. Now dollar figures are available to assess city officials' claims. It turns out that promises of a half-a-million-dollar revenue stream were wildly optimistic, if not outright exaggerated.

In fact, the city is losing money at U.N. Plaza.

Gross revenue at the antiques market from the beginning of September through the end of April was just over $91,000, according to John Updike, assistant director of the real estate division. Factoring in the cost to the city of running the operation, the department is projecting a $48,000 net loss for the fiscal year ending next month.

Updike blames the shortfall on the economy, as well as the departure of a number of vendors loyal to Millman amidst the acrimonious market takeover. "Frankly, the turnover was not very smooth," he said. "We had some difficulties, and we lost — I shouldn't say we lost — vendors were lost in the process."

To Millman, who's still sore over the episode, her vindication on the city's income projections is cold comfort. "I am not the point," she says. "The point is a miscarriage of government." Still, she says she'd like the chance to run the market again.

Meanwhile, the real estate division has drastically downgraded its gross-revenue projections for the fiscal year ending in 2010, predicting that the U.N. Plaza market will bring in $160,000. "We're just being realistic," Updike says. "We're trying to be conservative, now that we have a year's operation under our belt and know what issues we're dealing with." Too bad the same effort wasn't made when the city chose to get into the antiques business last August.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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