Webster Street fixer-upper loses longtime contract
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.”