Occupy Oakland has helped some local businesses, a new survey claims (Analysis)

In the last two months, the prevailing media narrative has been that Occupy Oakland has hurt local business and negatively impacted Oakland’s image.

But a survey of more than 100 businesses recently conducted by OO’s Local Business Liaison committee, a group comprised of small business owners, reached different conclusions. Oakland Local obtained a copy of the complete survey – covering a period between Oct. 10 and Nov. 5 – and reviewed it.

According to the survey of 106 businesses, all within two blocks of the Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, 80 percent of the local businesses contacted by the committee reported that OO either increased their business or had no significant impact; businesses reporting a detrimental impact were a distinct minority.

Specifically, the survey cites:

  • 20 percent of businesses surveyed described OO as “decreasing business or having negative impact;” of those businesses, three described themselves as “great supporters” of OO; the remaining 19 said they had “neutral, mixed feelings,” or “were not sure.”
    25 percent of businesses surveyed said OO has “improved business” or had a “positive” impact; 90 percent of those said they supported OO, with the rest remaining neutral.
    55 percent of local businesses were either “not sure” of O/O’s impact or indicated “some positive and some negative impact that seems to balance out.” Of this group, the majority indicated “neutral, mixed feelings” about OO, with almost 20 percent describing themselves as “great supporters.”

Not a single one of the 106 businesses in the survey reported that they had a negative level of support for Occupy Oakland.

These findings clearly contradict statements made by the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and City Councilmembers. Many media reports have generally blamed Occupy Oakland for tarnishing the city’s image in the business community, but this survey has a different set of findings.

In his Nov. 25 column, SF Chronicle writer Chip Johnson said that because of OO, “The city’s credibility as a viable place to live, work and do business hangs in the balance.”  Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, generally considered a pro-business politician, claimed the Occupation set Oakland’s economic development efforts back 15 years. And Joe Haraburda, president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that at least three corporate firms pulled out of lease negotiations in the week before Nov. 2’s General Strike.

The Local Business Liaison committee – LBL – is still in the process of analyzing and collating data. However, its preliminary findings were that businesses reporting a positive impact included credit unions, convenience stores, low-end restaurants such as pizzerias and delicatessens, as well as restaurants outside the plaza area. The largest benefit was realized by credit unions, whose increase in business was “directly attributed to Occupy Oakland’s promotion of local banks/credit unions” prior to Nov. 5.

Businesses reporting a negative impact included high-end restaurants, cafes and retail stores – some of which suffered as much as a 70 percent drop in receipts.

Yet the LBL said that decline in revenue wasn’t solely attributable to Occupy Oakland’s encampment at the plaza, but was further impacted by the police action of Oct. 25, which resulted in widely-seen video footage of tear gas being deployed against protestors.

According to the LBL, “Those who reported negative impact from the beginning of the Occupy Oakland event also reported an additional and sustained drop in business following the police action on Oct 25.”

The LBL stated that the presence of riot police in the downtown area was detrimental to local business, specifically impacting pedestrian traffic, which retail shops rely on for sales. And the lingering effects of tear-gas “caused reactions in people who were in the downtown area the day after the police action,” which “was certainly not good for business.”

Other factors that may have contributed to negative impact on business include the “aesthetic impact” of a highly-visible homeless encampment in the downtown area and vandalism. Businesses in and around Ogawa Plaza and City Center who cater to city employees may also have been affected by mandatory work furlough days.

Yet, even after the vandalism and property destruction which occurred on Nov. 2, many Occupy supporters went out of their way to patronize affected businesses such as Oakollectiv and Tully’s coffee.

Prior to the Occupy movement coming to Oakland, there were numerous vacant storefronts downtown – a sign of the economic recession, as was the low occupancy rate among the new condominiums built under then – Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan. In 2009, for instance, the Chronicle estimated the percentage of vacancies among new condos in Jack London Square and Uptown rate at 50 percent.

In recent months, some empty retail space has since been filled by pop-up shops like the Betti Ono Gallery and Runway. Still, many vacancies remain, such as the large commercial space at 14th and Franklin situated across the street from the Joyce Gordon Gallery and Githinji Wa Mbire’s pop-up gallery.

The LBL maintains that the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t represent small, local businesses and sees the Occupy movement – and its focus on the 99 percent – as something that can actually help mon’n’pop shops who aren’t being served by big business interests.

Asked if the Chamber of Commerce was a strong advocate for local business, LBL member Jesse Smith said, “The Chamber is staffed with business people who chair in large corporations and their agenda reflects this. Local business owners express that the chamber is hostile to small business, threatening their existence with preference to stores like Banana Republic.”

Smith, who canvassed many of the businesses in the survey, noted that “The Chamber of Commerce has not produced any research on [the impact of Occupy Oakland on business]. This leaves them free to speak from their imagination.”

LBL member Maria Gastelumendi, the owner of The Rising Loafer Cafe and Bakery added, “If one wants to hear from local business owners about their perspectives, go to an association that actually represents them, such as Oakland Grown/Sustainable Business.”

But Paul Junge, the Public Policy Director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said, “the notion that we’re hostile is completely unsupported by facts.” Seventy percent of chamber members are small businesses, he said, and during the Occupation of the plaza, the chamber was asked to coordinate a meeting between 30 small businesses, only half of whom were chamber members.

Junge said it “would more than surprise me” to learn that only 20 percent of businesses in and around Ogawa Plaza were negatively impacted by Occupy Oakland. He received, he said, “dozens” of calls of complaint during the occupation of the plaza, adding there was a “great deal of frustration” with how Occupy Oakland was affecting the perception of business in Oakland. According to Junge, businesses were impacted as far away as the Fruitvale District, and up to 300 potential jobs were lost when lease negotiations were called off.

Junge said customers, clients and lease agents have all told him they were scared by the violence surrounding Occupy Oakland, which contributes to a “pre-existing reputation” of Oakland as a dangerous place.

However, Junge said his evidence is purely anecdotal: “The Chamber has not done a scientific study.”

When pressed, he said that after the Oct. 25 incident in which war veteran Scott Olsen was injured, he got calls saying, “the police are violent;” after the riot following the general strike of Nov. 2, that changed to a “fear of protestors.” He also said that some are hopeful that the businesses who broke off negotiations will eventually come to Oakland, after the furor dies down.

In the meantime, LBL’s ongoing efforts to bolster the downtown retail district have included introducing a resolution at a General Assembly in support of small local businesses – which passed – and endorsing the “Keep Downtown in the Black” event on Black Friday, which urged consumers to boycott “big-box” stores and shop local instead. And, Smith said, they are pursuing an effort to certify businesses as “Occupy-friendly,” in a manner similar to the “Fair Trade” seal. Also, he added, “we are helping to protect a small business (Mama Buzz Cafe) from imminent gentrification.”

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