ONE OF SAN DIEGO'S MOST SUCCESSFUL RETAILERS and restaurateurs, Diane Powers is starting over after more than three decades. Her long battle with the state over the lease on her Old Town empire, Bazaar del Mundo, finally ended in May when Powers ended her court appeals over the awarding of the state lease to out-of- state Delaware North Companies. But even before the process had ended, Powers was at work on a new three-pronged project. A new incarnation of Bazaar has already put down stakes across the street in a complex adjacent to her Casa Guadalajara restaurant. The old Bazaar’s Casa de Pico restaurant is reopening in La Mesa. And late next year, in partnership with GMS Realty, she’ll unveil a vast new complex of shops on the site of the old San Diego police headquarters, adjacent to Seaport Village.
TOM BLAIR: So, after fighting the good fight, you’re starting over. And yet, you have a 33-year string of successes to build on. How do you feel about the new adventure.
DIANE POWERS: Great. My favorite aspect of business is the creative part. The upside is it’s given me a wonderful opportunity to get my creative energies going. We’ve done the new Bazaar stores, and I just had a ball doing that. And now I’m working on the new La Mesa restaurant. Then the big one I’m working on, simultaneously, is the downtown project. We’ve done a lot of the basic layout and space allocations, and we know where everything will lay out. It’ll be a little bit bigger than the old Bazaar—45,000 square feet. And another 45,000 square feet will be mostly devoted to a public market. And then there’ll be a dinner theater/nightclub.
TB: Your battle with the state over the Old Town lease wasn’t pretty. Now you have plans to open a similar venture on Port of San Diego land, the site of the old San Diego Police Headquarters. Do you worry you might be trading one bureaucracy, the state, for another, the Port?
DP: (Laughs) You’d think I’d learn, huh. So far, I’ve had a good relationship with the Port, and they already have Seaport Village. I’ve really enjoyed working with GMS. And we’re all going in the same direction; it’s all very complementary.
TB: Some may think your contributions to San Diego began with the Bazaar. But those of us who’ve been around a while remember your interior design innovations going back to the ’70s.
DP: Well, I designed the concept for the first walk-in Jack-in-the- Box, where it wasn’t just drive-thru. I did one in Chicago and one in Mission Valley. And Vacation Village [now Paradise Point Resort] on Mission Bay—the rooms as well as the lobby and dining rooms. El Cordoba hotel in Coronado. I also worked many years ago on Grossmont Center where they wanted to create an avenue through the interior with different stores. And Southern California First National Bank; did several of those.
TB: A few of those projects were done with Dick Silberman . . .
DP: . . . and Bob Peterson. Bob was the instigator of all the design; he really wanted it to be lively and colorful.
TB: And Dick Silberman.
DP: I actually borrowed part of the money from Dick to start Bazaar del Mundo in 1971. And he had an interest until 1976, when I paid him off.
TB: Over the years, Bazaar del Mundo put an indelible stamp on Old Town. When it was closed, many neighborhood merchants felt visitors might be left with the impression Old Town had closed. How do you think the new Delaware operation will impact the neighborhood?
DP: I’d kind of like to reserve judgment on it. But I know some of the operators in Old Town, the concessionaires, are still quite concerned about the new leaseholder. And we’re trying to establish a new energy at the north end of Old Town with the new Bazaar shops. This whole end of Old Town is in transition.
TB: Let’s talk about the future. The great success you built with the Bazaar started with a run-down, abandoned 1939 building. Next year, you’ll open a new venture similar to the Bazaar in the old downtown police headquarters—another abandoned 1939 building. Do you see history repeating itself?
DP: The difference is this new one I’m looking at has been abandoned a lot longer than the old motel we transformed into the first Bazaar del Mundo. And the new site has several jail cells—in fact, one of the cells is allocated to be our big main kitchen.
TB: You won’t be serving jail food.
DP: No! It’ll be wonderful food. You know, I had looked at several locations, and after considering four or five, I kept coming back to this one because of the beautiful, big courtyard. I thought this site would allow us to do something very, very similar to the Bazaar.
TB: Exactly what will the new operation at the police headquarters comprise?
DP: We’re going to have a diversity of stores. And we’ll provide things that the people who live downtown will really enjoy. Our first priority is to attract the local clientele and give them something different.
TB: With the money you’ve made over the years—in design and with the development and operation of the Bazaar— you could easily retire. Instead, you’ve got three new ventures in the fire. What motivates you?
DP: It’s a creative process. And over the years, we’ve put together a wonderful staff, and I want to see them go forward with this. You know, the Bazaar became kind of a part of the fabric of the city. And so I just feel like there’s something missing.
TB: And you could have a little sweet revenge on the state, too?
DP: Well, I’m not looking at it that way. . .
TB: You’ve been a part of the business community here for more than three decades. And you’ve associated with the political leaders for two generations. Now, the city faces its most daunting fiscal and political challenges ever. How do you view the current upheaval? Do you see it hurting tourism?
DP: I’m hoping with the election coming up, we can turn this around. And I hope the person coming in as mayor really understands the impact tourism has on our city and how many people are dependent on it. When times are hard, they tend to start cutting money for tourism support, and by cutting there, they’re going to cut their own income to the city. Tourism doesn’t just happen because we have this wonderful climate and we’re by the ocean. It happens with good strong marketing, and putting the city out there and being competitive with Las Vegas and Orange County and Los Angeles and San Francisco. And giving people a reason to come down here.
TB: One thing most San Diegans don’t know about you is your national reputation as a first-class horsewoman. You have a room full of award ribbons and you groom and train your own prize horses. How do you find time for that?
DP: Actually, the last few months, because of the speed at which we’re trying to open these new businesses, I’m only riding maybe once or twice a week. But I’m not going to let it lapse. We all have to have a balanced life. In fact, I won the national championship in 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky. in the western category at the U.S. National.
TB: After 33 years at Bazaar del Mundo, and revenues of $27 million a year, it seems that venture is going to be hard to top. Aren’t you ever tempted to just climb up on one of your horses and ride off into the sunset?
DP: Sometimes. It depends on what the problems of the day are. But I had so much invested in Bazaar del Mundo, and such support from the community, I felt I had to fight for it. But I believe this will all come out in a positive way, and that’s why I’m pursuing it the way I am.
TB: Well, I’m betting my money on your horse.