John McConnel, new owner of the Upper Village Service station, tries to restore storied business as Montecito’s ‘one-stop shop’

For multiple weeks the historic Montecito Village Service Station in the Upper Village has sat in shuttered abeyance, its owner Jack Abston gone for Oregon and apparently gone for good. The gas pumps have taken on layers of dust and the perimeter has been cordoned off with yellow tape as though it were a crime scene. But not for long.

John McConnel, who had twice tried unsuccessfully to purchase the station, has acquired the business in a third time’s the charm deal that could see the station reopening as soon as this week. McConnel now owns the gas station and Village Automotive Repair, both in the Upper Village.

“He’s a good businessman. If anybody gets it, he’s the fellow that should get it,” said Roy Jensen, who owned the service station and repair shop for 36 years, of McConnel. “When I sold him the shop, I really felt like John was the right guy to have it. Now, I think he realizes it’s important to have both.”

Last Friday, McConnel said the station could reopen as soon as this week and at least by the end of this month. He’s begun looking for new employees and last week he ordered 18,000 gallons of auto fuel to be stored in the station’s three underground 10,000-gallon tanks. He’s also finishing environmental tests to make sure the business is still up to State standards.

“We’ve been working very hard to get it back into compliance, and we’re almost there,” McConnel said.

McConnel wouldn’t say how much he spent on the station but he mentioned that he’d taken a loan out on his home to finance the deal.

The acquisition of the station came as a pleasant surprise for Upper Village merchants who when snotified Friday said the deal would give a big boost to the business area. At Montecito Village Hardware, on East Valley Road, just footsteps from the station, Mark Ruiz, the store manager, said a lot of customers had come in inquiring about the station’s status and lamenting its closure. Other merchants echoed those sentiments.

“I’m glad the gas station is opening again,” said Mary Sheldon, the manager of Tecolote Bookshop. “I think its closure has affected everybody’s business in the Upper Village.”

McConnel’s purchase caps his seven-year-long fascination and pursuit of the station. When Jensen sold McConnel the auto repair shop in 1999, he meant to include the station in the transaction. But Chevron, which was involved with the property at the time, was planning to close and tear down the business.

Another opportunity came up for McConnel in early May when he entered a sales agreement with Abston. But the deal fell out of escrow on July 13 and Abston reportedly filed for bankruptcy and left for Oregon uninterested in striking a compromise. “We just couldn’t see eye to eye on it,” McConnel said at the time.

McConnel said for three months he wasn’t allowed to go inside the station until attorneys representing Abston released the business last month to Norman Borgatello, who owns the service station property. McConnel said from then on he negotiated strictly with Borgatello.

Despite the costs he’s incurred and the hassles he’s faced, McConnel said he was steadfast about striking a deal because the station and the auto repair shop “complement each other.”

“The important part is that the station is opening again,” he said.

In coming weeks, he plans to return the business to the way it was when Jensen owned it, a community hub suffused with 1950s nostalgic charm. Working as a combo with the auto garage, McConnel wants the gas station to become a “one-stop shop” where customers can come in and get a fill-up, tune-up, oil change and hand carwash all at the same time without leaving Montecito.

“I don’t want people to have to go anywhere else,” McConnel said. “I’m going to get some forties music playing and get the ding ding bell back in there. It’s going to be a novelty place, if anything. It won’t be a high volume station.

“It’s a neighborhood shop,” McConnel continued, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

Cold Spring Parents Ponder How Measure K Got KO’d

For Cold Spring School faculty and parents, Measure K stood as the single hope to add new facilities, renovate current ones and bring the campus into 21st century fortitude. The $14.5-million general obligation bond, however, came up 51 votes shy of approval in last week’s election. Despite the defeat, sponsors of the tax saw encouraging signs in the election results and are already preparing for 2008, the next time a bond measure can appear on a voting ballot.

“We still have many important facility needs,” said Dr. Brian McCabe, Cold Spring’s superintendent and principal. “We still want to offer a remarkable educational environment for students and parents, and that’s always been one of the hallmarks of Cold Spring School.”

While they’re resolving to succeed in the election, Measure K supporters are still pondering last week’s loss. McCabe and other parents admitted the defeat left them despondent and confused because they believed voters understood the school’s needs.

“We had a lot of confidence in this,” McCabe said. “Maybe we didn’t get enough info out there or communicate our situation well enough. But somehow we didn’t convince voters.”

The defeat, though, didn’t happen due to a shortage of voters. Nearly 65% of the school district’s 1,717 eligible voters participated in the election, about 4% higher than the entire County’s turnout. At 50.5% approval, Measure K barely earned a simple majority and was 51 votes short of the requisite 55%.

McCabe attributes the defeat to a number of possible factors, one of which was that Measure K was competing on a “challenging ballot” that was full of tax measures, including the $1.6-billion Measure D, which did not pass. McCabe also questions whether voter values have changed. In 1996, the Cold Spring district electorate passed the $2.9-million bond Measure O with a vote of 79%. The bond’s overwhelming success suggests to some parents that Measure K’s demands might have been too high.

“Personally, I don’t think fifteen million is too much. I’ve built in this area so I don’t think it’s too absurd,” said Luann Caesar, a Cold Spring parent. “But obviously a lot of other people didn’t think that.”

A factor of the defeat that remains to be seen is how Westmont College voters influenced the election. Other than staking campaign signs on the college campus, Measure K backers didn’t spend any time courting college voters. They chose to do this in part because they didn’t feel comfortable pursuing non-property owners who wouldn’t have to pay Measure K taxes. But they also didn’t want to squander resources on an unreliable voting demographic.

“From a pure campaign strategy standpoint, you really want to spend your time on high-propensity voters,” McCabe said. “If we had been active in acquiring the Westmont vote, would we have won? I don’t know. History says that college kids don’t turn out to vote in high percentages.”

Until a month before the election, opposition against Measure K was scant, at least publicly. Then came David Strauss, the Montecito resident who single-handedly mounted an aggressive campaign to run the tax measure into the ground. At open houses, auctions and local watering holes – “wherever I could buttonhole somebody,” he said – Strauss warned potential voters that $15 million was an exorbitant request that would encourage profligate spending. He lined the entire inside of his car with anti-Measure K placards and he posted bulletins on the Westmont campus. He handwrote letters to hundreds of school district residents and competed against Cold Spring students picketing for the levy.

“I say to Cold Spring, don’t build new buildings,” Strauss said over the phone Monday. “Work with what you have. This is the number one school in the district. Construction will only distract the children.”

Part of the construction earmarked by Measure K would have been 10,000 square feet of permanent classrooms to replace portable units, in addition to a new administrative office near the school entrance. Strauss said he felt that asking for any more than repairs of deteriorating facilities was more than taxpayers should bear. He prefers a parcel tax that would be split evenly among all of the district’s property owners.

“It’s not that I don’t love the children, don’t get me wrong,” Strauss said, “but if they came forward with a fair and equitable repair of facilities,” he’d be in favor of such a proposal.

For Measure K supporters, challenges lie ahead, such as rising construction costs that within two years could bring their wish list to more than $20 million. Plus, they’ll have Strauss in an opposing corner, anticipating the 2008 election.

“For the next two years, I’ll be on top of this, attending board meetings to see what they’re up to,” Strauss said. “Trust me, next time I’ll bring out more ‘No’ votes.”