By John Earl
When it started three years ago, the main idea behind Surf City Nights in Huntington Beach was to recapture the first three blocks of Main Street—the biggest beer-bar village in Orange County—for families who normally avoided it.
For just one night a week from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. kids and adults could come together for family oriented fun on streets closed to noxious car fumes and the rowdy party-hearty crowd that normally owns the downtown during evening hours.
Surf City Nights got off to a great start.
Vendors selling fresh produce, bakery goods, crafts and clothing were joined by a cache of talented buskers, including singers, bands, dancers, acrobats and magicians, some of them younger local people seeking to improve their craft and gain public exposure. Together, they attracted thousands of obviously pleased visitors every Tuesday.
The city managed and subsidized the event at first as part of an experiment with the goal of handing over management and costs to the downtown business owners represented by the Downtown Businesses Improvement District, which collects fees from member businesses.
Some city subsidies are still flowing, but complete operating control was handed over to the BID by the city a year ago last January. Looking for a change of direction, the BID fired the city’s SCN manager and hired its own manager, Mary Ann Senske, on a ninety-day trial basis.
Crowds, along with buskers and vendors, had seemed to be trailing off a bit more than normal even for the cold winter months, but on Senske’s first Tuesday on the job SCN looked on the brink of collapse.
At least nine vendors didn’t set up, leaving a huge empty space on the first block of Main Street, normally filled with artisan and candy booths. Only a handful of the regular buskers showed up and crowds were sparse.
The city’s economic development staff went downtown that night to investigate and left worried. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one staff member confided that his department was disappointed with the management of SCN and concerned for its future if things don’t change.
The same staffer said that the BID’s new manager didn’t have the right type of experience for managing a farmer’s market and that it was too big a job for the BID to do by itself full time.
But a quick look at Senske’s background online indicates that as the chair person for the annual Wings Wheels and Rotors Expo at the Alamitos Army Airfield, an event that features “aircraft, helicopter rides, fly-bys, car show, music, food courts, vendors and family entertainment,” according to a calendar blurb in Orange Coast Magazine last October, she should be well qualified to handle anything that might come up on Surf City Nights.
Another city insider insisted that the vendors were upset with new fee increases and said that there had been many complaints.
But a public records search indicates only one recent complaint about Surf City Nights on record with the city: a Thai food vendor who asserted that fees for the event were higher than fees at similar events in other cities.
One of the first things Senske did with the BID’s blessing was to change the fee format for vendors from a percentage basis to a flat fee. Artisans will pay $60 a week in the winter and spring months and $125 per week in the summer, for example.
Entertainers, who earn money only from tip donations for their performances, don’t have to pay but go through a fairly strict application process.
Contacted by the Voice on March 11, Connie Pedenko, the BID’s executive director, insisted that all was well and that the vendor vacancies had been due to the wind and nothing more.
“[T]he wind came up and the vendors on the first block said ‘We can’t put our merchandise out.’…So we allowed them to pull into any slots we had open on the other block and park their cars as a wind barricade.”
Pedenko acknowledged that program changes are under way and that “Whenever there is change people get upset,” but said that the changes were meant to uplift a sagging program.
“When this event started, actually, it was for economic vitality for downtown and to bring business downtown on a Tuesday,” she said, referring to local families who weren’t coming previously.
Surf City Nights is not just a farmers market, she added, but a fair. “We’re going back to that idea and will have different things going on.”
One of those things, the Art Walk, isn’t on Tuesday but fits the family concept that Pedenko wants to emphasize for the downtown. Every third Wednesday from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. downtown businesses host an artist. In February 20 downtown businesses exhibited the work of various artists, excluding nudity or “shock and awe,” of course.
The new manager is also trying to rebuild relationships with entertainers that Pedenko says the BID lost contact with previously. “You will see the ones we originally started with … and they were excellent performers. So you’re going to see them coming back.”
Pedenko promised that things would get back to normal soon. “It will be fine, trust me. Give us a few weeks before we start judging everything.”
Three weeks later it seems that Pedenko has been fully exonerated. Most of the empty booth spaces have been refilled and the crowds are also back enjoying SCN veteran entertainers like folk singer Eric Kufs, guitar blazer Adam Ho and others.
But there’s more good news: Pedenko revealed for the first time that Surf City Nights may expand to the Strand and up into 5th street after the summer months and some other special attractions may be offered too.
Without a doubt, the Strand could use a little excitement. It stands relatively isolated, utterly boring and sparsely visited—can’t we think of something besides clothing boutiques, hamburger stands and yogurt shops? But with its narrow street and sidewalks that are clean and wide, it is also the ideal setting for a street fair and farmers market.
Pedenko admits that the idea will take a lot of planning to pull off. “We ask everyone to be patient because we have some very experienced people who are doing the coordinating. … Everything we do is family oriented. That’s our goal.”