Columbia park bid process challenged

June 13, 2002 12:00 am

By ABBY SOUZA

Janice Nelson represents the third generation of Nelsons to work in Columbia Candy Kitchen, in Columbia State Historic Park. Her coworker and daughter, Sarah Gardella of Jamestown, is part of the fourth generation.

Now, the Nelsons are fighting to keep the park business — and the family tradition — alive for the fifth generation.

"I think we're one of the oldest businesses in Tuolumne County right now," said Nelson, who, like four other longtime park business owners, could lose their right to operate there. "We don't want to leave. … This is our home."

The California Department of Parks and Recreation owns the Columbia park, so private businesses within its boundaries have concession contracts with the department.

Columbia Candy Kitchen, De Cosmos Photo Studio, Towle and Leavitt, Columbia Candle and Soap Works, and Columbia Mercantile are all at the end of their state contracts and must now reapply for the use of their buildings — or move their business elsewhere.

To have a park concession, prospective business owners apply to use a building through a complex bid process which takes into account what the merchant would pay in rent, how the business plan blends with the park's Gold Rush history and the bidder's business experience. Each business then signs a contract, usually for five years, pays rent to the state and must reapply for the use of the building when the contract is up.

This means both the present merchants renting the five buildings up for bid and prospective tenants must write bid proposals.

However, many of the park concessionaires find the state's bid process unfair, especially for established businesses — like the Candy Kitchen, which was in the park even before it even became state property.

Columbia State Historic Park business owners recently expressed their concerns at a meeting with John Shelton, chief of the concessions and reservations division of California State Parks, and Lori Deacon, one of six concession specialists in the state park system.