Local businesses, charities feel economic pinch

Shoppers are more wary of making big purchases, local charities see a drop in hard dollar donations and thefts put a dent in their ability to help others.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu may be known as the playground of the rich and famous. But it is not immune to the vagaries of a morose financial market, according to Malibu residents and local business leaders, even when approaching the holiday season. Holiday shoppers are guarding their wallets and merchants and charities are feeling the squeeze.

All types of local businesses have felt the hit from the worsening economy.

Alan Goldschneider, general manager of Malibu Beach Inn and outgoing president of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, said that business is “down a bit from last year.”

“We had a buzz last year, having just opened,” he said. “This year, I think business travelers are spending fewer nights on the road and retirees are not taking the weekend trips they normally do.”

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To combat the downturn, Goldschneider said, “We’re doing a lot of value-added stuff, where our rates stay the same, but we throw in a free meal.”

While he said he expects to be fully booked for New Year’s Eve, Goldschneider said Malibu businesses just have to tighten their belts.

“Malibu has seen tougher times with fires,” he said. “We’ll bounce back. We just need to think outside the box.”

Tighter fiscal constraints have hit local charities as well. Nikita Clark usually posts herself outside Starbucks, seeking donations for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Coalition.

“We only have 77 beds left to house at least 5,000 kids in L.A. County,” Clark said. “Donations are usually OK here in Malibu, but I’m lucky if I raise $200 a day now.”

Jack McShane, incoming president of the Boys and Girls Club of Malibu, said his organization is being doubly hit-by reduced private donations and a rise in parents working more to stay afloat.

“Our membership is up 20 percent over last year,” he said. “We have more kids who are staying longer after school because parents are working later. At the same time, our donations are down considerably at a time when we need to upgrade our facility.”

McShane said the club provides free snacks every day and free meals on Fridays. “It would be nice to have a large grocery store donate snacks,” he said.

Some charities are struggling not only with a gap in traditional contributions. They are losing the donations they’ve already acquired.

Joe DiDonato heads The Orphan Foundation, a nonprofit in Newbury Park that provides grants to families who adopt institutionalized children. Much of their funding comes from donation boxes distributed to local businesses. DiDonato reports that the charity has lost nearly half their donation boxes to opportunistic thieves.

“Our boxes are clearly marked that these funds benefit orphans,” DiDonato said. “People come in and just twist them off the counter. We’ve lost about 100 boxes this year. Hopefully, they are using the money for food.”

Like McShane, DiDonato said the loss of funds comes at a time when they are most needed.

“The people who are adopting children, the people we help, are losing their jobs right now and are more in need than ever,” DiDonato said. “We’ve gone from thinking about bottom lines to thinking about life lines.”

Sgt.. Tui Wright of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station said the newly formed Burglary Apprehension Team, or BAT, has dealt with an anticipated seasonal rise in burglaries in the local area.

“We have a number of deputies deployed throughout the region, targeting vehicle thefts and burglaries,” Wright said. “So we have seen a marked decrease in this type of crime. And we’re up at least 25 percent from last year in clearance rates of crimes. So we’re catching the bad guys.”

Wright urged vigilance from residents to avoid unpleasant holiday surprises.

“Keep your purchases in your trunk, where they are not visible to thieves who smash windows,” he said. “Watch your neighbor’s house and if you see anything suspicious, like a strange car in the neighborhood, report it to us.”

A visit to the Malibu Country Mart two weeks before Christmas revealed stores less active with gift shoppers than in holiday seasons past. And those who are frequenting Malibu’s commercial hub are much more prudent with their purchases.

Heidi Staun of Topanga was visiting the mart more to enjoy the noontime sunshine with her daughter Soleil than to shop. She said she would contribute to her favorite charities this year, but that her purchasing will be lean.

“The economy is so bad because we Americans are very good at buying stuff we can’t afford,” Staun said. “We need less stuff. I’m hoping this whole thing makes people revisit their priorities.”

Jennifer (who did not want to give her last name) is in telecommunications and said, “This year has been OK for myself and my husband, but we’re holding onto our money in case next year is worse. I’ve cut way back on shopping.”

Michelle Klein was checking out the wares in the Malibu Colony Store and said the only way she controlled her spending this year was to do everything early.

“I set a budget and finished my holiday shopping last month,” she said. “I noticed that advertised sales are much more aggressive this year. I’m getting more discount offers in the mail.”

Tina Nicholls, owner of Malibu Colony Store, said customers come into her shops looking for bargains. “Things have picked up a little this week after a very slow time,” Nicholls said. “It won’t make up for the rest of the year, but it helps. I’m lucky and have a very loyal customer base here. They don’t ask for it, but I offer them discounts because I see that people aren’t buying the big-ticket items. They’re not buying gifts for their employees.”

The manager of Juicy Couture, who did not want to be named, said flatly, “Traffic is down everywhere. All the stores are offering promotions now.”

A barista who has worked at Starbucks for three years said he noticed a “huge drop” in tourist traffic this year. “I’m sure it has affected all the vendors here,” he said. “It’s been really slow the last few months. Only locals.”

However, not all is so bleak. Some charities are still seeing the silver lining of locals’ giving. The Children’s Lifesaving Foundation, which helps low-income and at risk youth, reports it managed to throw two local holiday parties for low-income youth with the help of Malibu residents and businesses who donated time, food and other items, and local schools that held toy drives.

“We were a little worried this year,” CLF founder Maria D’Angelo said. “But, everyone came through, as usual! It was miraculous!”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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