Main Street on the historic downtown thoroughfare of Needles is nowadays devoid of food vendors. The last remaining food “joint” on the downtown “Broadway,” section of RT66, the “Burger Hut,” closed down when a strong gust of wind blew its roof off last year.
“The reason for the lack of food vending businesses in the downtown section of Needles should definitely be food for thought at the political forum this next Wednesday,” said local businessman David Buckley, “What will the candidates do about the anti-competitive policy of the “Needles Downtown Business Alliance” run by West End business owners who are keeping competition and growth out of the once prosperous downtown area?”
Needles historically was a significant element of San Bernardino County and California, the spot where the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed the Colorado River. As a consequence, beginning in the late 1880s, it grew into what at one point was – with its population of slightly more than 10,000 – the fourth largest city in the county, one that became a full service municipality, with its own police department, fire department, water utility and electrical utility. In the 1920s it reached its heyday as a key way station for bootleggers and illicit alcohol purveyors and smugglers during Prohibition. Poised along Route 66, it was known as the Gateway To California to automobile travelers from the late 1920s to the 1960s.
But Needles has fallen on hard times, and both its police department and fire department have been subsumed by the county sheriff’s department and fire de-partment. Its population has attrited significantly, to the point that at 4,884 residents, it is the smallest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities population-wise.
Buckley claims that “it is no coincidence that it is the Needles Downtown Business Alliance (NBDA) in con-junction with the Chamber of Commerce that will be in charge of moderating the one and only public debate that will take place here just as the absentee ballots are mailed out by the county next week.”
The public forum is to be held on October 12, 2016 at 5:30 p.m. in the “El Garces” historic train depot meeting room and will be moderated by George DeLeon, long-time member of the NBDA, who has the same surname as former City of Needles Human Resources Director, Genevieve DeLeon. Questions are to be accepted from the public as long as they do not tend to “pick on any one candidate” a chamber spokesperson said.
Among those to be interviewed are the local municipal and school board candidates. Dr. Edward T. Paget is un-challenged in his race for mayor of Needles. A hot debate should ensue between nine candidates vying for three seats on the city council. Two of those seats are currently held by incumbents Tom Darcy and appointed incumbent Shawn Gudmundson. A third incumbent, Tony Frazier, has bowed out this year after serving on the council since the mid-1990s. The seven other can-didates in alphabetic order include Tona Belt, former incumbent Linda J. Kidd, Clayton B. Hazlewood, 1990s councilwoman Ruth Musser-Lopez, Gerald “Jerry” Telles, Timothy Terral and John H. Wagner. Four candidates will compete for two seats on the school board. Incumbents Marilyn H. Mathews and Christina Cameron-Otero are hoping to be reelected. Long-time resident and former city councilman Steven Thomas along with Chad Donald Zamora also will be competing for the board seats.
“I’m not sure how a forum run by an illegal trust, featuring anti-competitive policies and practices will reflect well on any of these candidates” Buckley, who is a leading critic of the status quo in Needles, pondered. “Just the word ‘business alliance’ in the organization’s name ‘Needles Downtown Business Alliance’ is enough to scare any business off,” he says, “I have been the only legal off-site vendor in town for the preceding three years holding the necessary San Bernardino County Department of Environmental Services temporary food facility permit to vend food as required by the California retail food code. The two organizations running the current political forum, the Needles Chamber of Commerce and the NDBA, for no legitimate reason, have together barred my family business from setting up food concessions at multiple events over a period of two years—first it was the Vietnam veteran bikers’ ‘Ride for the Wall’ event, and then they barred us from participating in the El Garces renovation ground breaking ceremony. The San Bernardino County health inspectors raided NDBA event at the El Garces grand opening. A cover image from the local paper clearly shows Needles City Council members reacting to the health inspector’s raid as then-city council member Linda Kidd cuts the ribbon.”
Buckley continued, “There’s been seven NDBA events that have been closed down by the county inspectors over a period of two years, and somehow the NDBA has avoided being cited for those illegal operations. Someone had apparently told the NDBA that they did not have to comply with the law. Current San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood maintains an exclusive private relationship with the NDBA, attending at least seven NDBA events while at the same time failing to appear at one Needles City Council, with the exception of the swearing in ceremo-ny for new council members. He has never come to speak to the people at a Needles City Council meeting or answer questions of his constituents or hear the needs of the people of the East Mojave area.”
Buckley was relentless in his expressed criticism of the alliance.
“Janet Jernigan, NDBA spokesperson, lives in Arizona,” Buckley charged. “She owns the Farmer’s Insurance Agency in town and has refused us membership in the NDBA and refused to insure our home business structure, Another Farmer’s agent from out of town did insure us. Janet Jernigan also runs a realty agency out of her office and refused to sell business property to me in the downtown area.”
Jernigan had not returned by press time phone calls from the Sentinel seeking her input.
Buckley wasn’t through.
“The staff of long time NDBA member Larry Deatly, owner of Decco Foods Distributor, refused to sell food supplies to me for my business purposes and in public at city council meetings has been heard to refer to Joe Jones as ‘Boss,’” Buckley said. “I will definitely be asking the incumbents why such illegal anti-trust associations are allowed to control development in the community.”
Buckley claims that “Joe Jones, a businessman who operates several food vendor businesses at the West Broadway offramp, including the Dairy Queen, Subway and Orange Julius, has effectively, along with Susan Alexis and a few others, seized the food vendor market on the west side of town. Alexis is the owner of the Wagon Wheel.”
Buckley claims that both Joe Jones and Susan Alexis are long term board members of both the NDBA and the chamber. “Jones was serving as president elect of the chamber heading up the plans for a new chamber of commerce building in downtown Needles, but suddenly he dropped out of site and the new building appears to be in limbo,” Buckley said. “The chamber serves as a sensor to detect encroachment into the Needles market. The NDBA serves as a bully gatekeeper thwarting competition. Our economic potential has been chilled. Any good business operator would not drop a dime into this town until there is a county administration willing to step in and do something about the wrongful restriction of trade here.”
Buckley asserts that the NDBA is “a proxy trust operated on behalf of the Needles City Council, featuring the utilization of interlocking directors, exchange of funds and espionage by city staff. Ex-city councilmember Terry Campbell, for example, concurrently served as both vice mayor of Needles and vice president of the NDBA, an illegal trust. The NDBA was created and operated to restrict trade and is utilized as a gatekeeper to the market. When two or more parties are formed to restrict trade, you have an illegal anti-trust situation.”
The Sentinel has found that the California Secretary of State identifies Susan Alexis as the “agent of process” for the Needles Downtown Business Alliance active since February 15, 2007 with an address at 2420 Needles Highway which is the site of the Wagon Wheel Restaurant.
“Several years ago, Joe Jones and several west Needles petroleum distributors actually concocted a plan to se-cede from Needles and create the new incorporated city of West Needles, California,” Buckley told the Sentinel. “In 2013, when my family bought our home business, that plan was afloat. Joe told me that he would take his new chamber building and build it in West Needles.” Buckley said.
“After looking at this for three years,” Buckley com-mented, “it appears that the Downtown Needles Business Alliance is actually a front for business owners on the west end of town at the West Broadway offramp. It is no wonder that the federally funded I-40 Interconnect project has been designed and redesigned so many times to the tune of five to seven million dollars, and now, depending upon how they time the light signals, they could actually direct traffic to the west end of town away from the downtown business district and defeat the entire purpose of the federal project which was to create a direct link from the I-40 to the bridge into Arizona.”
Alexis and her business, the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, on the west end of Needles, received the business of the year award at the chamber of commerce $100/plate dinner last week where numerous City of Needles golf course passes valued at over $250 were donated to the chamber for its’ silent auction. “The city subsidized the golf course to the tune of $400,000 this year,” Buckley asserted.
The Needles Chamber of Commerce offers a much more upbeat description of Needles than does Buckley.
“Needles offers a wide variety of service stations, fine motels, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, specialty shops, automotive supply stores and marina parks,” the chamber maintains, contradicting Buckley’s vision of a closed enclave of businesses shutting out competition. “Needles offers a wide range of business and recreational opportunities of all types and for all visitors. Activities range from shopping, sightseeing, golfing, hiking, swimming, fishing, camping, water sports and recreation. Needles is rich with history. Needles is home to El Garces (hotel/depot), one of the original “Harvey Houses” built by Fred Harvey and Santa Fe Hotels in 1908. Needles is also famous for resting along the original Route 66. Many of the original buildings and businesses still exist in the ‘old downtown’ area of the city. Travelers will immediately get a sense of the historical feel to Needles when visiting the area. Attractions for the area include the Mystic Maze, the Mojave National Preserve (home to the Kelso Dunes), the Mitchell Caverns, real ghost towns, the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, and the natural beauty of the Topock Gorge, to name just a few.”
The chamber looked beyond Buckley’s criticisms to say, “Visitors to Needles will quickly discover a refreshing small, hometown atmosphere and wide variety of opportunities available in our area. Whatever brings you to our community, Needles can provide you with a wonderful experience. Community events, local attractions, bright blue skies, desert beauty, next to the exciting waters of the Colorado River are here for all to enjoy!”