The California Heritage Museum in August of 2010. (photo by Fabian Lewkowicz,

MAIN STREET — There’s a Mexican standoff taking place over the lawn in front of the California Heritage Museum.

The Main Street Business Improvement Association and representatives of the Santa Monica-based museum are poised to begin negotiations over the disputed piece of property, which became a touchstone issue last year when City Hall declared sales taking place on the museum lawn illegal.

In years prior, California Heritage Museum officials sought out artists and other business people to sell items during the Main Street Farmers’ Market that takes place adjacent to the lawn on Sundays.

In return for space near the bustling crowds of shoppers, the museum charged rents, which brought in anywhere from $700 to $750 a week, an important sum to an institution that’s been running in the red for years.

With the money from the lawn no longer coming in, the museum did the only thing in its power to do — shut down access to the space entirely.

The decision chagrined city officials, who wanted to keep the space open for picnickers and customers of the market to enjoy their newly-bought prepared foods, fresh fruits or vegetables.

The business association got caught in the middle, said Gary Gordon, president of the Main Street Business Improvement Association.

“The only way vending can happen on the lawn is if the [association] decided to administer it, which would be an arrangement between the museum and the association,” Gordon said.

It’s created a delicate dance between the three institutions to find a solution that benefits everyone, although what that will look like is unclear.

From the point of view of the museum’s executive director Tobi Smith, the Sunday constituted an important source of income for the businesses and the museum.

“That’s like paying a staff person a salary,” she said of the loss since December, when Code Enforcement laid down the law and put an end to the sales.

Now more than ever the museum needs the extra income.

According to tax documents, the nonprofit has run a $7,000 to $20,000 deficit between its revenues and expenses since at least 2007, right before the nationwide financial collapse.

That was a double whammy for nonprofits like the museum, which saw donations and attendance decrease at the same time that government stopped offering funds for the arts.

The museum has had a great deal of success with its food truck fundraisers on Tuesday nights, but it’s not enough to keep the museum in the black, Smith said.

“Because we’re all having difficulty, we’re all looking for alternative means of bringing in funds,” she said, referencing other museums that find themselves in the same position. “We cannot survive on traditional admission.”

City Hall has no issue with the museum making money on the side, but it has to abide by the municipal code, said Miriam Mack, economic development manager with City Hall.

Sales on the lawn would need to be included in the museum’s permit and then administered by the business association, a change which the Planning Commission could approve.

“They make money by sponsoring booths on the lawn and we’re kind of OK with that, but the whole effort got away,” Mack said.

At this point, Gordon isn’t sure what the association will get out of the deal, except assurances that vendors operating at the market will all belong to businesses that have brick-and-mortar store fronts somewhere on Main Street.

It’s the same as for “little Main Street,” the official retail arm of the Farmers’ Market, Gordon said.

“In terms of the number of vendors or the placement of the vendors, none of that has been decided from our point of view,” Gordon said.

City Hall will wait in the eaves until the two organizations have hashed out a plan, and then will move on changing the permit to include the sales, assuming that the arrangement leaves space for Farmers’ Market customers.

The Planning Commission would then have to amend the museum’s permit, a time-consuming process that could determine the exact number and placement of vendors allowed on the property.

In the meantime, officials hope that the museum will relent and open up the lawn for everyone’s use.

“We’re hopeful that perhaps with the initiation of discussions the Heritage Museum will, in anticipation of a positive outcome, allow our customers to enjoy the lawn,” Mack said.

Minimally, the museum is looking at reopening the lawn for their ever-popular food truck nights, a fundraiser that’s garnered over $75,000 for the museum in the last 18 months and is perfectly legal.

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