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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Screen Not Saved : The Skyview Drive-in theater is almost definitely going dark in the next three weeks.

Santa Cruz Flea Market Folds

With the sale of the Skyview Drive-in, Santa Cruz braces for the loss of its only flea market and its last drive-in theater.

By Steve Hahn

Kathy Brown found the vintage chairs she had been seeking for two years. Dean Smith found cheap camping gear for his Boy Scout troop. Jose Hernandez found a pair of bronze statues to adorn his home for only a few bucks. Jim Gonzalez paid 50 cents for a rare German figurine he would later sell for $150.

These and other bargain-hunting success stories abound at the Skyview Flea Market, located on the grounds of the drive-in theater at 2260 Soquel Ave., every weekend. Yet the market, set to be closed Nov. 25 to make way for an expansion of the adjacent Sutter-owned Surgery and Maternity Center, is also thought of by customers and vendors as a community meeting spot where "fun," "exercise" and "recreation" are as important as making a sale. And they're sad to see it go.

"No more flea market, no more fun," says Harry Rodriguez, a Scotts Valley High School janitor who was selling videos for a dollar at his booth last Saturday. "Sometimes I lose money, I'll just give away kids' movies if the kid is crying. I love coming here to meet people, meet friends, or even see the people stealing my stuff," he adds, laughing. "Even if I'm sick, I'll come out to the flea market, and I feel better."

The Skyview Drive-in, showing first-run movies since 1949, will join the flea market in permanent closure on Dec 2. Many local residents are mourning the loss of the dual-use open-air market and theater, and they're not likely to take much comfort in the argument made by Sutter spokesman Ben Drew: that the services offered at an expanded medical facility will help fill a physician gap existing in Santa Cruz County.

"There are a lot of physicians who are either retiring or leaving the area for a number of reasons," says Drew. "This is all happening at a time when the baby boomer population is reaching retirement age and there is demand for a number of additional medical services that will be needed in the future."

Drew says Sutter has not determined exactly how the land will be used, but ideas so far include additional office space for physicians, expanding the hospital services offered at the existing Surgery and Maternity Center, or adding more diagnostic services. After a more thorough plan is nailed down, Sutter will begin work on acquiring the development permits necessary for construction. This means construction will not start for at least a year.

That could be good news to Mike Alperin and others organizing the "Save the Flea Market" campaign. Their petition, which was sent with 17,000 signatures to Sutter Health and Santa Cruz County officials, asks that the flea market be allowed to continue operating until Sutter begins construction. This, flea market aficionados hope, will allow them to find a permanent location elsewhere within the county.

"The reason Sutter might cooperate is that this would make them look great in terms of corporate image. It's called 'mitigating the damage,'" says Alperin, who started the petition drive. "The only way these people stay connected to each other is by coming to the flea market every week. The other flea markets are too remote for most customers. A lot of people are just there to buy some produce, look around, and leave. They aren't going to drive to Watsonville, San Jose or Alameda."

However, as of now, preventing permanent closure on Nov. 25 seems unlikely. This wasn't the case when negotiations between Sutter and Skyview began last spring, but over the summer Sutter discovered it would be held to requirements it hadn't previously considered. Drew's statements in May to the Mid County Post indicated the flea market would stay open while Sutter prepared for construction, but prohibitive insurance costs eventually ruled out that option.

"Regrettably there were a number of liability issues, including substantial liability insurance costs, which made it unable for us to allow a flea market to continue operating at that site," Drew says.

Yet the door hasn't been completely slammed shut on the flea market. "If there is a governmental agency or another qualified nonprofit that can address the liability issues and assume the associated liability insurance costs," adds Drew, "we would be willing to look at allowing the short-term use of the site for a flea market."

End of an Era
If this is indeed the end for the flea market, it will also be the end to an era for many longtime vendors such as Jim Gonzalez, who has been selling old books and other antiques at his booth for more than 20 years.

"I enjoy the people and I enjoy the ambiance out here," he says. "It's a way of life for me. You can just see that it's like a mini-city, not just an underground economy. People's lives are going to be affected. I've had people come up to me today worried about what they're going to do when I leave. They've been buying from me for years."

For longtime customer and sometime vendor Dean Smith, the cheap camping gear and cool Star Wars toys he found as a child are just one part of what will be lost.

"This is my Friday, Saturday and Sunday exercise routine," he says. "I figure the admission fee is cheaper than a gym membership. I can just come in, walk around, and see what I can see. I bargain hunt sometimes, but mostly just visit people. It's my fresh-air experience."

Alperin, who says he built his general contracting business from used tools found at the flea market, believes if a permanent location is found the market can be enhanced. He said he'd even be willing to run it.

"If we're allowed to continue with our approach, our plan is to revitalize the flea market," he says. "We'd turn it more into a community-recycling marketplace. There could be uses during the week by schools and other organizations. We would lower the seller's price and the admission price to make it more available to the citizens. We would make healthier foods available at the concession stands. Some of the money that's generated from the admissions, seller's fees and the concessions would be directed toward public community projects or charity."

Alperin says it will be nearly impossible to organize and plan for this vision if the flea market is shut down at the end of the month. Too many vendors will be traveling to San Jose or Salinas to sell their wares, while many of the regular customers could find other venues for their shopping, such as farmers markets or thrift stores, and therefore lose interest in the quest to "save the flea market."

For T-shirt vendor Roberto Flores, the closing of the Santa Cruz flea market just means he'll spend more time selling at other flea markets in the Bay Area. Flores, who lives in San Jose, isn't worried about his own economic survival, but he can't say the same for many of the local vendors.

"The property owners just want the money, they don't care about the people," he says. "I know a lot of people here that have been here for 20 or 25 years and this is their job. These people, where are they going to go?"

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