For the past few years, Arroyo Grande resident Helen Saulsbury has volunteered as a bell ringer, singing Christmas carols and collecting dollars and coins for The Salvation Army.
“I loved to be in front of Walmart,” Saulsbury said. “I’d sing Christmas carols, and people would joke they’d give me money to stop singing.”
So she was concerned and then upset to learn that the bell ringers’ familiar red kettles — as well as any other fundraisers, such as Girl Scouts — are being prohibited from the Five Cities Center, the shopping plaza off West Branch Street in Arroyo Grande anchored by Walmart and Albertsons.
Also, a local Salvation Army representative said the bell ringers weren’t allowed to put a kettle in front of the Vons grocery store at 1191 Creston Road in Paso Robles — a decision made by the shopping center’s property management firm, not the store.
A commercial property supervisor for the Five Cities Center said lease agreements have always prohibited solicitation, but the policy had not previously been enforced.
The change was prompted by calls earlier this year from tenants concerned about overly aggressive solicitors not connected to The Salvation Army who reportedly were following shoppers to their vehicles, said Ana Latorre of Santa Barbara-based Investec Management Corp.
She declined to identify which businesses called to complain.
“If we allow one (group) to do it, we have to allow everybody to do it, and we as a landlord are in violation of our own agreements with the tenants,” Latorre said.
A representative from Santa Maria-based property manager Tri-W Enterprises Inc., which manages the Vons property, could not be reached for comment Tuesday on why The Salvation Army was not allowed to ring there.
Meanwhile, local Salvation Army officials and volunteers are worried about how the loss of the kettle sites will impact their annual budgets, and how local programs will be affected as a result.
“We are a very strong community,” said Saulsbury, who said she wrote Investec a letter imploring it to “quit looking at the bottom line” and support the community. “We work together, all of us, and this is just a big blow.”
Beth Quaintance, The Salvation Army’s service extension representative for San Luis Obispo County, couldn’t recall any similar situation in the more than 20 years she’s worked and volunteered for the organization.
Bell ringing is the only fundraising event The Salvation Army holds in San Luis Obispo County, and 90 percent of the donations are used to assist local residents, she said. There are about 40 donation sites throughout the county, including kettles outside shopping centers and “counter kettles” placed inside smaller businesses, she said.
“It affects an entire community,” Quaintance said, “because if we don’t collect the money in our communities, we can’t spend the money in our communities.”
In the South County, for example, assistance programs include providing groceries, paying utility bills, helping to prevent evictions, and putting together Christmas food boxes for families, individuals and seniors, said Michael Coughlin, program coordinator for the nonprofit’s Southern San Luis Obispo County Service Extension Unit.
Quaintance and Coughlin estimate the local offices stand to lose an estimated $27,000 to $35,000 without bell ringers at the two shopping centers.
The change came too soon, Coughlin added, to work out agreements for additional sites — and in a rural county such as San Luis Obispo, there are only so many high-traffic spots in which to position bell ringers.
“You want an entrance with a constant flow,” Coughlin said.
“I’m very concerned,” he added. “We’re trying to do anything we can to close the $30,000 gap. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re contemplating cutting programs — we’ll do everything we (can) to keep our programs going.”
Quaintance said she hopes the counter kettles help make up the difference, and she’ll try to find more spots for them next year.
Latorre suggested that The Salvation Army position a bell ringer inside Walmart. Coughlin said he’s pursuing the idea, but doing so presents other possible issues — from liability concerns to taking up room on the sales floor — and any agreement to do so wouldn’t be worked out in time for this year’s fundraising.
“They are one of the nonprofit organizations that I personally support,” Latorre added. “If you really want to support The Salvation Army, send a check to The Salvation Army.”