Small Business Commissioners support Pet Food Express over local stores

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Does giving money to the city turn a big corporation into a small business that has simply swelled with its own success?

San Francisco’s Small Business Commission has recently come under fire for its promotion of corporate interests and, most recently, advocating for an allegedly predatory pet store chain known as Pet Food Express.

In 2009, the Small Business Commission voted in favor of denying Pet Food Express’ application for a location on Lombard Street in the Marina District. Subsequently, the Planning Commission also denied the request, seemingly blocking Pet Food Express’ efforts to set up shop in the Marina. 

San Francisco’s formula retail legislation requires chain stores like Pet Food Express to apply for a conditional use permit in order to receive approval for opening new locations.

But now, Pet Food Express is back after recently filing another identical application with the SBC for the exact same spot on Lombard Street, and this time some members of the SBC are oddly supporting the chain.

As Pam Habel, owner of local Marina pet store Catnip & Bones, pointed out at the commission meeting on June 10, Pet Food Express already has a location on California Street just one mile away. At the same meeting, Susan Landry, owner of another Marina pet store, Animal Connection, added that nothing has changed in the past four years that would point toward the Marina community needing or wanting this Pet Food Express, since four pet-related stores exist within a mile of the proposed Lombard Street location.

“We were really surprised and disappointed that the commission no longer seemed to be an advocate of small business and even made comments indicating sympathy for the big chain pet store,” Habel and Landry, told the Bay Guardian jointly via email. “Commissioner Adams even said it seemed unfair to him to penalize a business that had started out small and now are being victimized for their success since they are one of the largest pet store chains in the U.S.”

So what has changed since 2009 that is now making the SBC consider supporting the proposed Pet Food Express? For one, Mayor Ed Lee’s corporate-friendly appointees to the SBC, including developer Luke O’Brien and President Stephen Adams, a manager for Sterling Bank & Trust.

Additionally, San Francisco Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz lobbied for approval of the Pet Food Express while holding a blind Chihuahua adorned with a sweater at the June 10 meeting. Katz cited Pet Food Express’ many financial contributions to her agency as reasoning behind supporting the chain’s new location and expansion. According to Animal Care and Control spokeswoman Deb Campbell, Pet Food Express donates an estimated $50,000 to $70,000 in supplies annually to the city department.

“The more business Pet Food Express does, the more they grow and the more they give back to the community,” Katz told the Bay Guardian. “We take in about 10,000 animals a year on a budget of about $40 million.”

Kathleen Dooley, one of the SBC’s few existing members still in favor of promoting local business over big business, met Katz’s lobbying with criticism.

“She went up and lobbied for Pet Food Express and implied if it wasn’t for them no pets would be adopted and the animal world would be in chaos,” Dooley told the Bay Guardian. “They already have a number of stores in San Francisco, but they act as if this one on Lombard would change the tide.”

But Katz says that her public promotion of Pet Food Express is not lobbying. “I spoke to the Ethics Commission and they told me it is okay for me to talk about what Pet Food Express does for us,” said Katz.

Few of the arguments in favor of the Pet Food Express’s intrusion into the Marina actually acknowledge the store’s potential detrimental impact on the existing local businesses. Katz even publically said she thought it was ironic to protest another corporation coming into the Marina, where so many chain businesses already exist.

“The size of the Lombard location would allow for an adoption center which would have a huge impact,” said Katz. “Whereas residents have to drive to the California Street location, now they could walk.”

Unfortunately for local Marina businesses, the SBC, whose professed goal is to “work to support and enhance an environment where small businesses can succeed and flourish,” may be doing just the opposite by supporting a chain business that will undoubtedly endanger the many locally owned pet stores.

“As small businesses in San Francisco, we rely on the SBC as our voice at City Hall, not as a sympathetic voice for chain stores,” said Habel and Landry. “Because of their response last month, we no longer feel that we can look to the SBC to support small business in San Francisco.”

In her presentation before the commission, Landry drew an analogy to the previous opening of a Blockbuster on Lombard Street. Following the corporation’s entrance into the community, all four independent video stores in Cow Hollow closed within a year.

At the same meeting, Commissioner Mark Dwight acknowledged the predatory nature of Pet Food Express, who has sat on the same property for four years in order to continuously rally support in favor of the proposed location.

The pet supply stores in the Marina could face the same fate as the local video rental shops if Pet Food Express succeeds in opening on Lombard Street.

“When chain stores go in, commercial rents go up and the small mom and pop businesses are priced out of the neighborhood and replaced by even more chain stores as they are the only ones who, with their corporate structures, can easily afford high rents,” said Landry and Habel. “This is about more than one Pet Food Express application on Lombard, this is part of our battle to retain the heart and soul of our neighborhood commercial corridors.”

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