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Webster Street fixer-upper loses longtime contract

Submitted by on 1, August 16, 2010 – 5:00 am12 Comments

Photo by Heather Lyn Wood

By Heather Lyn Wood

No one can deny that Betty Dittmer loves Webster Street. Since 2003, Dittmer has been its “eyes and ears,” personally maintaining and greening the West End business district under a contract with the West Alameda Business Association (WABA). But this week marks the end of that contract and what many saw as a very productive relationship.

This year, the city decided to renegotiate the maintenance contracts for Webster and Park streets, and they received seven bids for the job. The Webster Street maintenance contract was won by an off-Island janitorial company that took the job for $2,000 less per month than Dittmer had been paid.

Dittmer, who business leaders on Webster Street said went above and beyond the call of duty in her seven years on the job, hopes that the street she sees as the heart of the West End will not suffer from the transition.

“A district needs to be perceived as clean and safe in order to be marketed to people. If it is not perceived that way, you are not going to open your car door, let alone your wallet to shop or buy a piece of property,” she said. “So I hope there is a seamless transition. Webster Street deserves no less.”

Maintenance was not always Dittmer’s forte. In the summer of 2003, she sold a successful trucking company and was taking a break before making her next career move. Meanwhile, WABA had two short months to organize its second annual Webster Street Jam. Dittmer and six other local volunteers chipped in to make sure it came together on time.

The Jam was successful, but Dittmer says that WABA later received complaints from attendees about the street’s cleanliness. So at the end of the summer, with no retirement plans and a desire to help the community, Dittmer accepted a contract to maintain the business district. She later came up with a new name befitting her vision of Webster Street: Alameda Sparkles.

In 2004, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the city contributed $1.4 million for the Webster Renaissance Streetscape, a project to add pedestrian amenities, landscaping, and historic lighting to the area. Dittmer provided the maintenance, and WABA paid the bulk of her contract with landscape and lighting funds collected annually from the district’s property owners. The rest of the Alameda Sparkles contract was subsidized by events like Concerts at the Cove and the Webster Street Jam.

The West End business community agrees that Dittmer’s services went beyond the call of duty. In addition to cleaning sidewalks, removing graffiti and performing landscaping work, Dittmer maintained a photographic log of graffiti and notified WABA staff about local goings-on.

“Anything that didn’t look right to me, I would let them know,” she said. “And good things, too … If a business finally put in a new window, I would make a note of it.”

WABA’s executive director, Kathy Moehring, confirmed this. “Betty is passionate about what she does. She does her job as more than a job, and it shows in the work she does.”

Perhaps Dittmer’s most enduring contribution was her West End community service program. A few years ago, Dittmer decided that the area’s bus stop benches, railings and tree lights were in need of more attention. She contacted the Alameda County Superior Court and proposed that individuals court-ordered to perform community service be allowed to fulfill their hours on Webster Street.

She assigned workers projects in their own neighborhoods to increase their sense of ownership and investment in the community. According to Dittmer, a large percentage of the mandated workers have returned as willing volunteers, and “all leave with a new attitude toward Webster Street.”

Dittmer recounted a story about one young man who had recently finished painting benches in front of the Shell gas station. A few weeks later, after his court-ordered hours had been completed, Dittmer got a surprise call from him. Friends of his had ridden their skateboards on the benches, he explained, damaging the paint he had just put in place. The young man asked Dittmer if he could come back on his own time to redo the paint.

To Dittmer, this is just one example of her contribution to the Webster Street district, a personal connection that she said “you can’t buy.” And she questioned whether more could have been done to keep her contract in place.

“I’m on the front line. I’m the person you see and talk to every day. I can tell you where to get the best dim sum or hearing aid battery. I’m the person who sees someone on the street and calls him by name, asks about his health,” Dittmer said. “The loss of this contract means the loss of referrals to local businesses, the loss of daytime security for the street. The relationship I’ve developed with the police, firefighters, recycling lady, public works … Am I who you want to cut?”

Moehring says that working with an outside contractor was unavoidable in this case. “The decision to go with another company was not a poor decision. It was a financial one. It was very unfortunate, but necessary,” said Moehring, whose board voted to accept the new contract. “If you have always purchased something that costs six dollars, but now you only have three dollars in your wallet, you just can’t buy it anymore.”

“No one is more passionate about ‘buying Alameda’ than me. We tried very hard to do that,” Moehring added. “But sometimes it’s just not possible.”

Moehring said she feels the city acted out of economic necessity. And she said property owners on Webster Street voted against a proposal to increase landscape and lighting fees to fund maintenance three years ago. The fees have not been raised in 18 years, Moehring said.

Moehring has no doubt that Dittmer’s departure will be a loss for Webster Street and the West End.

“I can guarantee you that no one will do the job that Betty was doing,” she said. “If property owners aren’t willing to pay the extra L & L fees, they may have to get out their own brooms. We will miss her horribly.”

Dittmer is sad to see her job end, but hopeful for her future as a businessperson and community fixture.

“I’m not sure where I’ll land next, but it will have a ‘green’ aspect and a community service aspect, Dittmer said. “I will always have a community service aspect to my life.”

12 Comments »

  • Hal Keenan says:

    This is terrible. Just because the janitors are a little cheaper doesn’t mean theu’ll do a decent job, or even have nuch of an incentive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this “Off-island firm” is just some rich guy from the suburbs who pays substandard wages to marginalized workers. I used to work for someone like that in the 70s when I was homeless. I risked my neck doing high rise window ckeaning for 3 bucks an hour, part time. It fed me if there was enough work but did nothing to get me off the street. In my opinion a big problem with a lot of cities, counties, etc. is that a lot of the people who work for these entities, whether as employees or contractors, don’t live in the area that they serve. We have the same problem with public transit decision-makers who rarely use public transit. The people served are referred to as “Those people” and are generally branded as troublemakers. I think we should look within Alameda first, and hire Alamedans if there are any that are even remotely qualified for whatever job. If $2K is such a big deal then it could more easily be cut from somebody at the top. If it costs too much, then part of the problem might just be the cost of living right here in Alameda. Maybe we should work on that. I have never met Ms. Wood but it looks like she has been doing a solid productive job, and is someone who cares about and is invested in the community. That type of thing should be rewarded.

  • Hal Keenan says:

    OOPS! I meant Ms. Dittmer, Ms. Wood took the photo. Must_ have_ coffee_ and_ find_ reading_ glasses_ before_ commenting_ on_ articles.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    I have to agree with Mr. Keenan, sometimes the least expensive solution is not the best solution. It’s obvious that Ms Dittmer’s dedication to the West End and Webster Street area is far beyond that which we will be receiving from our new contractor.

    Yes, $2,000 per month is a substantial amount of money, but when you consider the intangibles it would bring with with it- civic pride, support of Alameda citizens, and the improvement of one of our most important and neglected areas of the City, I think it would have behooved the City to have retained Ms Dittmer’s services.

    I wish her the best of luck and hope that she finds something equally sustainable to support her business.

  • I was disgusted when I heard this news from David (Betty’s assistant) months ago. I remember working with Betty in 04/05 with a number of youth to clean up before the PBJ Festival. (I still have my t-shirt).

    Hire Alamedans first.

  • David says:

    Another strike against WABA. It really does put in question how effective they can manage their organization. If Ms. Moehring couldn’t find $2k a month in her budget to something that obviously is a huge piece of their customers “curb appeal”, I would suggest it might be time to look for new leadership.

    Then again, I might just still be biter about their amateurish and cowardly handling of their “No on E” position. My shopping dollars still haven’t returned (nor will they) to Webster St.

  • Hey everybody,

    In reading your comments, it is clear to me that I edited some things out of Heather’s story that I should have left in place, that would have better explained how this all came down and why.

    Essentially, the city decided to put the maintenance contracts for Park and Webster up to bid, and they selected the contractor headed to Webster for the boards of both business associations (WABA and the Park Street Business Association) to consider. PSBA has more money than WABA does, in part because they have bigger-ticket events (like the Art & Wine fest) that generate more revenue for them. (One other wrinkle: The city cut its annual subsidy to PSBA and WABA last year, giving them less money to work with.) PSBA’s board opted to spend the money they had to keep their two staff maintenance people; WABA’s board, which has a smaller budget to work with, did not.

    I hope that clarifies what happened a little bit, and I apologize that my edit omitted these details.

  • john piziali says:

    I would agree with David, that WABA as an organization always seems to be short sighted and miserly. I would disagree that Ms. Meohrings budget would allow her to find $2,000. per month extra, she’d be lucky to find $20.00 extra.
    I do have a real problem believing that some outside vendor is going to do Betty’s job and charge $2,000. less per month. I for one will be watching with great interest.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    There will be a dinner tomorrow (Wednesday, 8/18) at Otaez Restaurant on Webster Street to honor Betty Dittmer’s contributions to Webster Street.

    The buffet dinner will be upstairs at Otaez Mexican Restaurant at 1619 Webster Street.

    Cost is $20 and the event runs from 5:30 – 9:00 p.m. (Cash bar.)

    PLEASE RSVP TODAY* to the WABA office (523-5955) by 5:00 p.m. with Judy or Kathy if you wish to attend.
    (*Tuesday, 8/17)

  • Jon Spangler says:

    As I understand the change in street cleaning, the City of Alameda decided to consolidate the maintenance of both the Park Street and Webster Street districts as a cost-saving measure. The City of Alameda has tightened up its contributions to both PSBA and WABA as a result of its own budgetary woes and going to a single maintenance vendor was one way to save money.Competitive bids were solicited and the City’s budgetary goals were accomplished.

    Unfortunately, this is the result of the “bean-counting” value system that is perhaps necessarily the gospel at City Hall these days.

    The recent/current economic downturn, plus the “traditional” under-funding and under-resourcing of Webster Street by the City of Alameda, have made the tough economic times all that much harder on Webster Street and on WABA.
    I give Kathy Moehring and WABA lots of credit for maintaining as many programs as they have under the circumstances, including the Concerts at Crab Cove and Webster Street’s continuing improvement projects such as the Webster Street Vision update.

    FYI, the public workshops on the Webster Vision attracted many more people than the Civic Center Vision project workshop attracted to the Carnegie Library, demonstrating once again that the Webster Street district has a large and committed community behind it.

  • soij says:

    I wonder if the workers who will be sent to clean up the streets will be rounded up at the Home Depot parking lot? That seems to be the case for all these low-bid maintenance jobs.

  • Dawna says:

    Wow…..Thank you Michele for clearing things up for those who didn’t really understand that it was the city that had to make the decision not WABA…. Betty is a jewel and I’ll miss her deeply. Kudos to WABA (Kathy M.) for what she does our city. I am one of the many volunteers that assists both organizations (WABA & PSBA) and I have for many years (16 to be exact) at several events and many more events and years to come. To those of you with nothing positive to say, I have this to ask of you…”When was the last time you volunteered at a WABA or PSBA function? When was the last time you were at an Alameda event and didn’t have a “personal” interest in it?” I agree with my dear friend John Spangler “The recent/current economic downturn, plus the “traditional” under-funding and under-resourcing of Webster Street by the City of Alameda, have made the tough economic times all that much harder on Webster Street and on WABA.” What Kathy has done for Webster Street with little funds is amazing…..”Free” concerts once a month during the summer, year-round farmers market 2 days a week, halloween events, Wine & Dine, Santa visits Webster Street. If you haven’t volunteered at these events or attended or supported them I suggest you do. Not spending you money on Webster Street, I believe is a mistake. These are small businesses trying to make a living. These businesses pay taxes to the city and not having patrons forces them to pay less and maybe even close. You think that the schools are suffering now wait until there are no businesses to pay taxes. When the auto dealerships closed, I can only imagine how much that hurt the city and then the schools (no more $$$$$). Boycott something bigger than a poor Ma & Pa shop that’s just trying to make it like the rest of us. Use your energy in a positive way and volunteer. Keep up the hard work Kathy. No one ever told you that being Exe. Dir. you’d need to have a dental degree. It’s like pulling teeth and you won’t be able to please everyone, but you’ll please those who are in it for the long hall…

  • Jennifer says:

    I know of Betty by a different route. She recently bought a run down Victorian in Alameda and renovated it. The concrete front “lawn” is gone and now there are actual plants and real grass. She has endless energy and if I didn’t see her working on her own house I would see her cleaning up on Webster. I’m reading the testimonials of people that knew of her work. When has maintenance contractor ever had a fan club like hers? Says a lot. Some things money just can’t buy.

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