It seemed so inconsequential, considering everything she stands to lose. Yet on a postcard-perfect December day, there was Diane Powers-Old Town icon, San Diego businesswoman supreme, matriarch of Bazaar del Mundo-venting her spleen over a bit of October-wildfire ash that had found its way into one of her turquoise-tiled fountains.
"Isn't that amaaaazing? It's awwwwful," she squealed loudly, gaining the unintended attention of a few passersby. "It's just driving me nuts!"
The moment is wholly non-newsworthy, yet it speaks volumes about the headstrong woman credited with jump-starting the moribund tourism industry in the heart of San Diego's historic past by transforming an abandoned motor lodge into the world-flavor Technicolor oasis that is Bazaar del Mundo, the top-grossing concession in California's 47-park system.
Perfection is the name of the game in the Powers playbook. Anything less is as unacceptable as stagnation, which in her world is tantamount to decline and, ultimately, failure.
But "failure" is not a word you'll find in Powers' lexicon. She won't go near the idea-much less talk about it publicly-even as the state prepares to toss this horse-ridin' world traveler from the saddle of the tourist hotbed she has created over the last 32 years in her own brashly hued vision of paradise.
So, forgive her if a little gray ash-from a fire that had threatened her own East County dream home, no less-makes her a tad cranky. These have been trying months for the ever-smiling belle of the bazaar.
Talk to her supporters-and, believe it, there are many-and you come away with a portrait of a passionate, successful and tough-minded businesswoman with a totally unique style who met up with a political buzz saw that was preordained to sever Powers from her long-held lease on state park property in order to hand control over to a politically connected, out-of-state management company.
"It is the American Dream gone wrong," declared Powers' attorney, Mark Mann.
Her detractors, meanwhile, claim Powers is desperately grasping at any straw that will let her cling a while longer to the impressive empire she has built in the northwest corner of Old Town Historic State Park, the birthplace of San Diego.
"You've got to remember, it's public property-it's not Diane's," said Bernie Rhinerson, local spokesman for Delaware North Companies Inc., the Buffalo, N.Y.-based company tapped by state park officials in November to take over the Bazaar del Mundo lease. "She doesn't own it, even though she's had a lease for 30 years."
As impeccably coiffed as she is mannered, Powers thrives on the power of positive thinking, so it's no small feat to get her to delve into the darker chambers where political deals are generally hatched. In one of two interviews she granted to CityBeat in recent weeks, Powers offered a puzzled look when asked if she had made enemies while on the way to the top of state-concessions food chain.
"Do I have any enemies?" she asked her publicist. More puzzled looks.
Certainly state parks officials aren't too pleased with Powers these days. She has filed a protest over her losing bid to retain control of Bazaar del Mundo, claiming the bidding process was flawed and questioning the trustworthiness of Delaware North's bid. Powers also elevated the battle to federal court, where she filed suit to retain the trademarked names of two of the park's signature restaurants, Casa de Bandini and Casa de Pico.
She's also taken her case to the public, encouraging customers to write letters to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demanding that the bid process be reviewed and reopened. She said so far thousands of letters have been sent.
"We are hoping the governor will review all of this," Powers said. "We feel very strongly that the people of San Diego were not involved much in this process. It's the only California state park in the middle of a city. I think they need to listen to what the city also wants, because half of our business comes from local people."
It should surprise no one that Powers has decided to put up a fight for the popular complex of shops and restaurants that have risen from the neglected shell of what once was the Casa de Pico Motel.
"She really made that project," said Mann, her attorney. "As you probably recall, it started out as an abandoned, roach-infested, dilapidated motel, and Diane had the vision and creativity to make it into what it is today, which in the view of many really revitalized Old Town and in fact made Old Town what it is today."
It may be hard to imagine, but Old Town wasn't always a bustling tourist destination. Far from it.
"The area around here was the next thing to kind of a ghost town," Powers recalled. "This was not a tested area. It was an area where people probably would choose not to open a business."
But in 1971, the state Parks Department was looking for someone to redevelop a rundown motel situated in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The rest is San Diego lore.
At the time, Powers was running an interior-design firm on Fifth Avenue downtown that she had bought from her design mentor at San Diego State University, the legendary Ilse Ruocco. Her clients included the founders of Jack-in-the-Box, San Diego legends Robert O. Peterson and Richard Silberman, who had commissioned her to design some flashy indoor seating for the fast-food chain.
"People were really brave in those days for color," she noted.
One day, Silberman-who frequently jogged by the rundown motel from his home up the hill on Juan Street-brought Powers a news article announcing that the state was taking bids to redevelop the old motel.
A frequent traveler to Mexico, Powers gained inspiration from open markets for arts and crafts that she had encountered while visiting small villages. "The more I traveled around and learned about Mexico's arts and crafts," Powers said, "the more I became fascinated and gained a real appreciation for the textiles, the weavings, the ceramics, the jewelry-all of the art."
So with the financial backing of Silberman, Powers put in her bid. She held out little hope that she would prevail, considering that 15 others had initially shown an interest in the project. But it turned out that Powers and Silberman were the only bidders, and soon they realized that they had only three months to get the place up and running. About $100,000 later, they opened their doors.
The Nov. 4, 1971, opening of Bazaar del Mundo came two days after Pete Wilson was elected mayor. The San Diego Union ran a brief story in the middle of the local section, describing the new venue as "Old Town's answer to San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square."
When read the story, Powers chuckled to hear Silberman describe himself as "an impetuous arts and crafts buyer" (she actually did all the buying) and "incurable traveler."
"He did love to travel," she said.
Much is the same from that day in 1971, when visitors "flocked in to nibble Mexican delicacies as they sat beneath the bright-colored umbrellas and to listen to the music of a mariachi band playing in the red and yellow gazebo."
Much has changed as well. Powers bought out Silberman's interest about five years into the partnership. Silberman, of course, would later go on to mentor future Congresswoman and Gov. Gray Davis chief of staff Lynn Schenk-until he turned his attention to Susan Golding, whom he later married and backed in a contentious race against Schenk for a county supervisor seat.
Golding would win the bitter 1984 race, but Schenk would sue the future mayor of San Diego for slander, claiming a last-minute mailer sent out by Golding contained false charges. The two eventually settled, with Schenk receiving a $150,000 payment from Golding's insurance companies. (While mayor, Golding would divorce Silberman after he was convicted and jailed on charges stemming from an FBI money-laundering sting.)
Powers acknowledged that she was a Golding supporter, but said she's uncertain if such past allegiances played a role in her recent loss of the lease. She also said the ongoing legal scuffle precluded her from saying more.
But in the bid-award protest filed by Bazaar del Mundo with state officials, one intriguing allegation stands out. It alleges that "a high-ranking current official in the Davis administration stated that Ms. Powers would be awarded the concession "over my dead body.'"
As recently as November, Powers was telling the media that she suspected Schenk was behind her loss of the lease, but both she and her attorney have more recently distanced themselves from those allegations. Attempts to reach Schenk and Silberman for comment were unsuccessful.
Steve Capps, a state parks spokesman, said he's grown tired of hearing such claims of clandestine deal-making.
"There's no influence here," Capps told CityBeat last week. "It wasn't some backroom deal. It was out there for all to see. I know [Powers] has said these things, and I've yet to see one shred of evidence. If she believes there was influence, let's see the proof."
Capps said Powers had been aware for years that state law required putting the bazaar's lease up for competitive bid, something she had avoided through extensions from the state Legislature. "Hers never went to bid," he said. "The first time it came up she got an extension for 10 years, saying she had put a lot of money into it and needed to get her money back. And the Legislature said OK."
This time around, he said, Powers simply was outdone by Delaware North's bid.
Delaware North is a busy bee in the concessions game. Its $300 million parks and resort division runs concessions all over the country, from Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon to the Kennedy Space Center and the Delta Queen steamboat. It also holds the contract for San Diego's newest sports venue, downtown's Petco Park.
Delaware North spokesman Rhinerson said the firm has had its eye on the Bazaar del Mundo concession for several years. And why not? The bazaar reported gross sales in 2002 of $25 million and rent paid to the state at nearly $2 million, tops for California state park concessions.
Rhinerson said Delaware North's bid guaranteed a minimum annual rent payment of $2 million to the state compared to Powers' proposed $1.5 million. He noted that Delaware North's bid was judged higher for its interpretive plan-how the venue will tell the story of early San Diego-and for its financial plan, which calls for paying the state 8.5 percent of gross revenues versus Bazaar del Mundo's proposed 7.3 percent.
Delaware North also plans big changes-including the name (the working title is Puerta al Pasado, or "Door to the Past.") The restaurants will be upgraded and fitted with new kitchens. Public restrooms will be modernized. Casa de Bandini will be renovated back to its days as the Cosmopolitan Hotel, with nine bed-and-breakfast suites upstairs and a French-style restaurant downstairs and an oyster bar out back. Shops that now sell wares from many countries will be revamped to focus on the early Californian and Mexican influences of the 1850s, featuring a historic furniture store, a Western-wear shop, dress shop, a high-end jewelry store and a blacksmith's shop showcasing Mexican wrought-iron work.
"First and foremost, it is a public state park," Rhinerson said. "Part of the goal of that state park is to interpret for San Diegans and visitors what was Old Town San Diego like in the 1820s-to-1870s historic period. What we are trying to do here is not only make money for the taxpayer and make a great place for San Diegans to come and enjoy and have an economic boost to the Old Town community, but also to make it be part of the state park and part of that history."
But supporters of Powers question the wisdom of changing a successful concession.
Carol Anderson, a cheerful sales rep with sparkling eyes, has worked at Bazaar del Mundo for 10 years, most recently splitting her time between artist Laurel Burch's shop just behind a tortilla-making station and a gallery that sells Indian jewelry.
She's concerned that the ambience of the place will soon be lost forever. "People tell me, "The colors are so beautiful' and "The gardens are so beautiful,'" she said. "From what I'm told, those are the first things [Delaware North] wants to get rid of-the gardens and the color. Well, how colorful was it in the 1860s? I'm sorry, I'm thinking tumbleweeds, cactus and some mud."
Anderson tells of all the regular customers she has. "I have customers who come from out of state regularly," she said. "Not to come to San Diego, but to come to the bazaar."
She added: "It's special here. And Diane is so creative, so cool."
So, what's it like working for a perfectionist of Powers' caliber? Anderson said managers do run their stores (Powers owns and operates 13 of the 16 stores there, a by-product of the early days when she could find few tenants willing to move to Old Town), but Powers tours the shops daily and will often make display suggestions.
"She'll come in and do this," said Anderson, curling her right hand into a makeshift viewfinder that she raises to her eye. "She'll totally focus. She'll say, "OK, move that over three inches and bring this forward.'"
Doesn't such micromanaging drive workers crazy? No, since most shops flow into the next through archways, and "everything works together," Anderson said.
Power acknowledged that restaurant folks get a little edgy when she pits them against each other to come up with new and exciting menu items, which she said occurs quite frequently.
The competitive fires notwithstanding, it's tough to bring Powers around to talk about life without Bazaar del Mundo. While touring the area one recent day, she continually turned away from a visitor in an apparent attempt to compose herself.
Asked if she envisions the bazaar without her handiwork, she admits, "I can't go there. I just don't like talking about it."
Powers' publicist, Laura Walcher, called her a "completely remarkable and tough woman," but agreed that the last few months have been especially hard on Powers. "She's got tears residing just below the surface almost all the time," she explained. "I've seen them quite a bit in the last couple of months, and I would have to say I hadn't seen them for the previous 26 years. It shows that there's a terrific vulnerability to her toughness."
But don't cry just yet for the plugged-in Powers. She's enlisted the support of San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, who has written to Schwarzenegger requesting a new bid review "with local community representation [and] without members of the previous selection panel," which were chosen by parks Director Ruth Coleman and lacked anyone from San Diego. He also raised concerns about Delaware North's commitment to security concerns, which according to Powers was woefully under-budgeted in the company's bid.
Delaware North's Rhinerson rejected Murphy's contention, saying it's "unfortunate" that the Mayor decided to interject himself in the matter. "It shouldn't be a political process, a popularity contest," he said.
Meanwhile, Powers said she's considering other potential sites for Bazaar del Mundo, including, she said, some out of state. An award-winning horsewoman, it would seem odd that Powers might depart San Diego, where she maintains a stable of a dozen Arabian horses deep in the backcountry near Pine Valley.
She's also put in a bid with the Port District for a proposed open market at the old police headquarters near Seaport Village, but those plans have been put on hold for the time being.
Even her detractors express admiration for the commitment she has made over the years to Old Town, and she will still maintain roots there. She also owns the two-story building across Juan Street from Bazaar del Mundo as well as the restaurant Casa Guadalajara only a block away on Taylor Street.
Powers even holds out hope that she might be managing multiple venues, including Bazaar del Mundo. Some of her employees say they would like to follow her to her next venture.
"We have this much room for a miracle," said Anderson, as she held two fingers less than an inch apart. No chance she'd stay under the Delaware North banner, though. "Don't think I'd get past the interview process," she said. "I think it might get a little ugly in there."
And while Delaware North likes to say that it retains 98 percent of the employees at venues it takes over, few workers seemed excited about the prospect. "It's the known versus the great unknown," said one employee, who requested anonymity. "If I have a choice, I'll stick with the known. Diane knows what she's doing here. I can't say the same for Delaware North. I just hope they don't screw it up."