July 21, 2024
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Dubroff: Deckers chair wants to put Santa Barbara on sounder footing


Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

Deckers Brands Chairman Angel Martinez is running for mayor of Santa Barbara on a platform you might call radical centrism.

He wants to tackle the city’s homeless problems head on, bring more disciplined management to the struggling State Street retail corridor and yet retain the distinctive culture and architectural synergy that make Santa Barbara unique.

Over coffee at the Handlebar, a popular coffee spot downtown, and in a subsequent email exchange, he explained why a successful corporate executive — one whose company has been staring down shareholder activists recently — would want to tackle a city with budget problems, rising pension costs that could be the tip of a fiscal iceberg, and crumbling infrastructure.

For Martinez, 62, the challenges of State Street are job No. 1. Given the huge disruptions going on in retail, there is no way, he argues, that State Street will recover on its own.

“Paramount to generating foot traffic is the consumer experience, which is currently atrocious,” he said, adding that State Street “should be managed by block, as any competent mall operator would do.”

His goal would be to get property owners, business owners and the city together on a plan to remove the benches that have become gathering places for vagrants and increase policing to improve the quality of the State Street experience.

Martinez says his research suggests that half or more of the city’s panhandlers are actually micro-entrepreneurs who live on cash, evade taxes, have no overhead and would move elsewhere if their source of revenue dried up. He thinks the “lifestyle homeless” are preventing the city from getting services to the chronic homeless who truly have fallen on hard times or who have mental health issues.

His solution is a system of “Rescue Dollars,” time stamped certificates that will be sold to tourists who can hand them to panhandlers instead of cash.

“Rescue Dollars put the financial benefit in the hands of the homeless services that are serving our local homeless population,” he told me. They will “benefit the local people who need food, shelter, clothing and services” while also drying up the amount of cash available for the lifestyle homeless.

When it comes to the economy, Martinez wants to create a vision for the future that includes more housing and much better collaboration between Santa Barbara and its neighbors, particularly Goleta and Carpinteria.

He said Santa Barbara is missing the boat in attracting tech companies and millennial workers who are gravitating to more attractive small cities such as Boulder, Colo. and Austin, Texas.

“We will never solve our workforce housing problem, our traffic problem” and other problems without working together, he said.

The biggest longer-term challenges for the future of Santa Barbara are entrenched fiscal issues. Rising pension costs are eating a bigger and bigger chunk of the city’s $400 million budget — currently around $22 million a year or roughly the same as a proposed 1 cent sales tax hike would bring in.

There’s no sustained funding for downtown maintenance and improvement and no solution on the horizon.

“But we must begin the rational conversation required to make this the best small city in America,” he said. “We owe this to our kids and the next generation of Santa Barbarans.”

Martinez came to Santa Barbara more than a decade ago and created a global footwear powerhouse led by Ugg. Facing its own retail disruption, two Deckers shareholder groups have questioned the company’s direction — even wondering if its chairman has enough time to run for mayor.  Martinez points out he’s no longer running the company as the CEO and he’s too young to retire.

It’s an open question whether Martinez, a newcomer, can attract enough votes on Nov. 7 to beat the establishment favorite, City Council member Cathy Murillo, or whether he and veteran City Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, a Republican, will split the vote. At presstime, Santa Barbara Republicans were warning voters that Martinez was a Hillary Clinton supporter and not a true conservative.

But for now, Martinez says he’s looking forward to the retail politics of walking neighborhoods and asking for votes.

“I’m in the footwear business,” he quipped, “I’ve got plenty of shoes.”

• Editor’s note: The Business Times does not endorse candidates but it believes in a robust discussion of issues affecting the Central Coast economy. Angel Martinez was inducted into the Business Times Hall of Fame in 2010 in recognition of his role in building Deckers into a global brand. Reach editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.