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October 17, 2006 > Downtown dilemmas

Downtown dilemmas

by s

If the Hayward City Council held a clear vision of what downtown should be, they might find it easier to decide issues similar to those confronting them October 10. As it was, council unanimously approved one restriction on a less desirable class of merchants, and then deferred a decision on another. Both issues offered council a choice: revenue or image - a squeaky clean downtown or vacant storefronts filled with tax-paying businesses.

With little fanfare and no objections, council approved a Negative Declaration that will limit downtown tattoo parlors to those already in operation. The declaration specifies that future Conditional Use Permits (CUP) will only be issued for tattoo parlors located in certain designated subdistricts outside the immediate downtown area.

Russell City Tattoo on Mission Blvd. and Pin Point Tattoo on 2nd St. may continue operations consistent with their CUPs, but council says, "That's it." City staff reported that tattoo parlor clientele tend to discourage pedestrian traffic. The city still welcomes fees and taxes from tattoo parlors, but only if they operate outside the Central City-Commercial and Central City-Plaza subdistricts.

With that matter firmly settled, council found itself right back in the same dilemma in regards to Hayward's only gambling establishment. It seemed clear, enforce an existing ordinance or alter its limits. But public comments blurred the picture and council demurred ... for another week, anyway. The question was whether or not to allow transfer and extension of a unique operating permit granted 27 year ago to Katherine Bouson and set to expire upon her death. By all accounts, Bouson is in good health; she has honored the provisions of her exceptional permit; and she has prospered. Now, she would like to bequeath the operation to her three grown children as part of her estate planning.

The Palace Card Room is the only gambling establishment operating in the greater Hayward area and it sits on the edge of downtown, about a block from what could be termed, one of the busiest, most confusing surface street intersections in the entire Bay Area. The business is clean, neat and thoroughly monitored by modern surveillance cameras and licensed, private security guards. The card room pays substantial taxes and fees to the city. Bouson cooperates religiously with law enforcement personnel. Alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited. Testimony from several long-time employees and patrons suggests the Palace Card Room is as much a family as a business. Still, it is a gambling operation and Bouson agreed long ago to a one-time-only permit. Now she wants the city council to change that agreement.

At the opening of public comments, Mayor Mike Sweeney introduced "the legendary and distinguished sheriff of Alameda County, Charlie Plummer." The sheriff stepped to the podium and provided the "institutional memory" several councilmembers were seeking. He spoke of his hiring as Hayward Police Chief in 1976 with the charge of cleaning a city riddled with unsavory vice operations. He confronted multiple pornography outlets; 12 massage parlors, only one of which was not a front for prostitution; and six card rooms. Two of those card rooms had neither permit nor license, even though the city allowed card rooms back then.

Plummer did clean up the town, and made his reputation in the process. But one card room operation survived and continued with his blessing. He said, "Katherine Bouson was gung-ho; she wanted to make it work." She opened her doors and her books, making sure Plummer knew everything about her business. After a year of regular audits, the chief didn't need further oversight. City fathers issued a lifetime-only permit and the Palace Card Room became a Hayward institution.

Plummer emphasized that, "No one asked me to appear tonight." He clearly holds Bouson and her family in high regard and is passionate in his support. "It would be a terrible injustice not to let Katherine hand this [business] to her heirs."

After several employees and patrons expressed sentiments similar to Plummer's, Julie McKillop, owner of highly regarded Neumanali's Restaurant, spoke in opposition to an immediate decision. She was followed by Ralph Martin who owns the property directly across the street from Palace Card Room. Like McKillop, Martin suggested "tabling the resolution to allow for downtown merchant review." He also noted that he and his tenant had to employ "private security to police our parking lot, especially at night," as card room patrons are tempted to park there rather than using the Palace's off-site parking and shuttle arrangement. As a result, black-clad security personnel stand guard on either side of busy Mission Blvd. That image is not one of comfort to passers-by.

Ed Mullins of Hayward's Chamber of Commerce suggested the issue should be aired further before rendering a decision. He said the Chamber was unaware of the proposed transfer until it was posted on the agenda Friday afternoon, October 6. Mullins stated the Chamber has no position due to lack of information. In a subsequent conversation, Scott Raty, Chamber president and CEO wondered why the Palace Card Room does not operate under a CUP like every other business in Hayward. He'd like to see considerably more public discussion and comments from downtown merchants.

In council deliberations, four members stated support for the transfer, a number sufficient for a majority. However, Mayor Sweeney, who seemed inclined to deny the transfer, finally exercised Hayward's "councilmember prerogative" to table an item for one week. He noted that he probably wouldn't prevail, but felt obliged to extend the argument awhile longer.

 
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