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Clouds Over Sunset

Photo by Robert Hale
THIS WEEKEND, MORE THAN 200,000
revelers are expected to throng Sunset Boulevard near the terminus of Santa Monica Boulevard for the 19th annual edition of a community street festival. But increasingly in recent years, local residents and merchants have come to regard the street fair as more nuisance than celebration. And critics are wondering just what it is that street-fair organizer Michael McKinley does with the proceeds from the event.

"In the past, it was about the community," said Sean Carrillo, a former thrift-shop operator and member of the fair's steering committee in the early 1990s. "It was one of the things that made the fair so special." Carrillo said he lost interest in continuing on the board when it became apparent to him that the fair was more about making money and less about community involvement. "In the past, we the merchants didn't have anything to gain financially. It was more of a PR thing and a chance to meet the neighborhood folks." Today, he says, the fair is actively shunning its community.

McKinley responds that the criticism is mainly a reflection of his accomplishment. "I feel that there's a certain group of people, when they see someone being successful, they want to attack it," McKinley said. More important, he said, is the "multiservice community agency for youth at risk in the Silver Lake and Echo Park area" that the fair supports.

 

THE SUNSET JUNCTION STREET FAIR began in 1980 as a bid to defuse hostilities between longtime Latino residents and new, higher-income whites -- many of them gay -- who had been moving into the neighborhood. Two local gang-intervention programs, the Central City Action Committee and El Centro Del Pueblo, played leadership roles.

The fair became a success, and then something of an institution; now some longtime supporters say they hardly recognize the mass event that it's become. Fences have gone up to control access to the booths and music performances that are the primary attractions, the fees charged to operate booths were raised, and, in recent years, event staff began charging admission. Last year, the fair grossed more than $150,000, records show.

El Cid Restaurant owner Jack Heywood supported the fair from the beginning, and in past years hosted potlucks and organizing meetings at his restaurant; now he stays away. "The fair used to include the merchants, but now they just use our streets and turn around and leave," Heywood said in an interview. Besides, he said, the street fest hurts his business. Last year, he lost nearly half his customers to the new admission price, he said. "One of my employees had to pay $3 just to go to work. It used to be free, a neighborhood get-together."

 

THESE CONCERNS CAME TO A HEAD at a June 15 organizing meeting. Some retailers complained that they hadn't received fliers notifying them of the meeting, while others voiced grievances that ranged from traffic congestion to noise, to concerns that the fair no longer had character and was not geared to families.

Heated queries were put to McKinley, the cherubic but sometimes combative director of the Neighborhood Alliance. McKinley also runs a coffee shop and Asian boutique called Tsunami under the auspices of the same nonprofit; he also sits on the board of El Centro Del Pueblo.

According to merchants in attendance in June, McKinley refused to answer the questions posed at the meeting. Another meeting, in July, was also a bust. Community members said the date was changed at the last minute, leaving many unable to attend. Those who did make it questioned the status of funds raised by the two-day event, as well as programs being run or underwritten by the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, the private nonprofit organization that stages the festival each year.

Whatever the logistics, the questions about McKinley and the money persist. "It is no longer a community situation, but an individual situation," said Heywood at El Cid. Sean Carrillo concurred. "You have this nonprofit making money one weekend a year with Silver Lake attached to it, but the connection becomes very blurred," he said.

In an interview last week, McKinley insisted that the fair continues to be an asset to the local economy. "The reality is that people do a lot of repeat business after the street fair, and a lot of people do well. They have a built-in audience, and if they were smart, they would use that."

McKinley refused to detail his distribution of the proceeds from the event, however, and declined to disclose the names of his board of directors or his treasurer. Contacted again the following day, McKinley hung up the phone.

McKinley's critics have also attempted to get information -- and answers -- from City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district encompasses Sunset Junction, but they've been rebuffed there as well. "I am really disappointed with Goldberg's office. They have a job and should be looking into things," said Edie Isshi, who operates a fetish store on Sunset. Isshi complained last year to Goldberg's office about a fence that was put up around her property during the fair, but received no reply. "They aren't looking into anything Michael's doing, and we have been asking questions for years."

Goldberg and her staff ignored repeated calls from the Weekly over the course of several days.

Goldberg's apparent reluctance to answer questions involving McKinley or the street fair may stem from a recent controversy over her staff's involvement with El Centro Del Pueblo, where McKinley is board chairman. In a column published last year, New Times political writer Jill Stewart took Goldberg to task for attempting to direct $450,000 in federal community-improvement funds to El Centro, to help them secure new quarters in Echo Park. Local residents complained that Goldberg ignored their priorities for spending the grant funds, and their frustration turned to anger when they learned that Goldberg community adviser Conrado Terrazas sat on the El Centro board. Local activists alerted city officials, and officials from both the City Attorney and the Mayor's Office pressed Terrazas to either quit his job with Goldberg or quit the board of El Centro. Goldberg's office soon reshuffled Terrazas to another department, saying that he had been transfered as "part of a normal staff rotation."

 

FOR ALL ITS INCREASES IN FEES -- booth operators pay as much as $750 to sell their wares -- and admission charges, the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance reports to the IRS that it has made only a thin profit on the fair.

As a private nonprofit, the Alliance is required to file an annual IRS form 990, a public reporting of expenses and revenue. According to its 1997 filing, the Alliance generated over $150,000 at the fair that year, but netted after expenses only $17,000. By contrast, in 1993, a smaller-scale Sunset festival cleared more than $61,000 to finance youth projects.

There was no breakdown in 1997 of revenue from admissions, beer sales, booth fees or other revenues.

Alliance expenditures were reported in slightly more detail. According to the IRS forms, McKinley spent $76,580 on his youth-services work at Tsunami, as well as on mural projects around the neighborhood and helping staff after-school sports programs at Virgil Middle School at First Street and Vermont Avenue.

McKinley was not working alone, however. Some of his staff at Tsunami come courtesy of Marshall High, which refers students who earn community-service credit by working the coffee bar or doing office duties. Students also work the fair, as do at-risk gang kids referred by El Centro del Pueblo. McKinley also provides jobs at Tsunami for five young people in the summer, with their salaries paid by a federally funded summer youth-employment project.

At the same time, since 1995 the Alliance has received more than $100,000 in grants and financial assistance from other government agencies for its youth programs. Services offered by the Alliance include in-house tutoring, painting murals, planting trees along Sunset and installing a community garden. Virgil Middle School phys-ed teacher John White said that McKinley provides his school with soccer referees for four months out of the year.

Efforts to learn more about the Alliance by talking with board members were unsuccessful. The board includes Sandra Figueroa-Villa, a staffer at El Centro, who did not return repeated calls for comment; Jesse Villa, who shares the same address as Figueroa-Villa, who could not be reached; and Marisol Lara, a former administrative assistant to Figueroa-Villa, who has left the program and could not be reached. Ken Vannice, listed as treasurer for the Alliance, moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1996.

Contacted in Portland, Vannice said McKinley has done an excellent job with the Alliance. "I think the center is doing a lot of good in the community, and that takes a certain amount of resources," Vannis said.


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