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The longtime Bazaar del Mundo operator fights to stay in Old Town
The Bazaar, a rundown motel when Powers first got the lease in 1971, consists of a cluster of ethnic shops selling everything from Guatemalan blankets to Native American dream-catchers, along with several restaurants, most serving Mexican food. The buildings, constructed in 1936, are arranged around a courtyard that’s gloriously landscaped and, during the holidays, festooned with lights and other decorations.
Late last year, the California State Department of Parks & Recreation handed Powers her walking papers in favor of a higher bidder, Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, a Buffalo, New York–based concern that wants to transform the Bazaar into a “more authentic,” Early California–type attraction.
Delaware North offered the state minimum annual lease payments of $2 million (Powers pays $1.5 million) and promised to spend $13.6 million, up front, on renovations. Powers offered to spend $9.9 million; her bid called for significantly higher expenditures on maintenance and improvements down the road.
No sooner was she given the boot than Powers began a counteroffensive. The first salvo was a formal protest with the state, followed by a federal lawsuit claiming she owns the names of two of the Bazaar’s more-popular restaurants. She also suggests she’s a victim of politics, accusing former Governor Gray Davis’ chief of staff, Lynn Schenk, of exerting unfair influence to take the contract away from her. (Powers’ former partner, Richard Silberman, was once married to Susan Golding, the San Diego ex-mayor who is a bitter political enemy of Schenk.) Schenk did not return a call from San Diego Magazine.
“I have a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy and passion invested here, as well as more than 500 wonderful employees, and we need to protect this,” Powers says.
State Senator Bill Morrow, a conservative Republican, sides with Powers. In a guest editorial in The San Diego Union-Tribune, he maintains the state “treated [Powers] deplorably.” Morrow also blames politics, noting that lobbyists for Delaware North “contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Davis’ campaign. After making the contributions, Davis-appointed Parks & Recreation director Ruth Coleman and the Davis-appointed three-member panel were then lobbied on behalf of Delaware North. The outcome was a foregone conclusion.”
Steve Capps, deputy director of the state Parks & Recreation department, denies political shenanigans. “We were not contacted or lobbied by anybody, including the governor, to make any decision,” he says. “It was a very public bidding process, and each bid was received and evaluated by an impartial panel not appointed by the governor or anybody else.”
Capps says Delaware North’s bid was not only more lucrative for the state, but also was more in keeping with the department’s objective. “Aside from money, we had asked for help in telling the story of early San Diego,” he says, “and again, Delaware North was far above the others to take it very seriously.”