|By Renee Koury, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 18, 2004 - Scott Peterson's attorney Mark Geragos eats lunch daily at Bob's Court House Coffee Shop. Television networks rent space on the roof of the Redwood Law Center. Journalists pack the Vino Santo Bistro on Broadway. And the modest Good Nite Inn rents around a dozen rooms to out-of-town reporters.
Such are the few glimmers of gold for businesses in Redwood City since Peterson's double-murder trial geared up with jury selection eight months ago. But the nuggets are few and far between. The prosecution rested its case after four months of testimony, the defense is expected to start this week, and anticipated throngs of free-spending visitors have barely materialized. Most businesses have seen nary a blip in their sales.
"There was so much talk initially about the dramatic impact this trial was going to have, but we haven't felt much impact at all," said Larry Buckmaster, president of the Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce.
On top of it, San Mateo County and Redwood City are stuck holding the tab for thousands of dollars in bills for expenses like security, media parking lots and police overtime. Though the county is slated to be reimbursed, Redwood City has spent nearly $70,000 more than it got in rental fees from journalists. That's enough to pay for a full-time librarian.
When a judge moved Peterson's trial to Redwood City because of huge publicity in Modesto, the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau predicted the trial would pump $16 million into the local economy. But the case hasn't generated the circus-style onslaught that had been expected.
Some say it's because there's little reason for people to show up.
Only 30 members of the public can get into the courtroom each day and they have to enter a lottery every morning for a chance at a seat. Only 44 reporters are allowed in and no cameras.
Though some witnesses, such as Peterson's girlfriend Amber Frey, have drawn big crowds, dry courtroom proceedings have made much of the dramatic case a yawner.
That means fewer people venturing out to spend in town.
"There was an expectation that we'd get bigger crowds in here for lunch, but I guess we're too far away and we haven't seen any of it," said Mei Warmkessel, a manager at Milagro's, a Mexican cantina about three blocks from the courthouse. The restaurant scotched plans to boost staff by 10 percent.
Bakers Square Restaurant had offered free pie to the media when the trial opened, but that promotion never took off. Business at the diner stayed flat, a manager said.
Tony Ito's hot dog stand a block from the courthouse serves 50 or 60 wieners a day, but Ito said he gets more business from people going to traffic court than to the Peterson trial.
"Every Monday people come here with their traffic tickets, and that's my best day," he said. 'Peterson? Not really." Scattered spending Peter Shaplen, the producer coordinating pool coverage of the trial, says money is being spent but it's spread out and difficult to track. For example, Geragos is staying at the San Mateo Marriott Hotel, a few miles north of town. Several reporters followed suit so they could catch up with him in the hotel lounges at night, Shaplen said. The TV networks are using a range of hotels in the area depending on the deals they get in their corporate travel accounts.
Still other reporters have rented apartments.
Then there's spot business here and there. One witness was flown in to little-known San Carlos Airport. A local party shop got a six-month deal to rent a tent to a network. And Geragos bought a building about a block from the courthouse, for $1.7 million, records show. When contacted this week, Geragos declined to comment on what he is doing with it.
Some businesses have noticed the influx of visitors.
At Bob's Court House Coffee Shop, Geragos and his defense entourage have a standing reservation, owner Bob Bryant said. Peterson's family also eats there often. Other luminaries such as Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren show up at Bob's, as do the reporters shadowing Geragos. The Peterson jury also goes there regularly, and Bryant says he has to be careful to seat them separately.
"I'm not the kind of guy who comes over and asks what's going on," Bryant said. "I treat the celebrities the same as I treat the guy who digs a ditch." Although his business is steady and a bit glitzy, Bryant says overall business might be up only about 10 percent. Many of his regular customers are staying away because of the crowds and tight parking.
The Vino Santo Bistro on Broadway opened a few months after the trial did. Ted Rowlands of CNN came in for lunch one day and that sparked a big media following. Now trial Judge Alfred Delucchi and the Peterson family also lunch there. And Vino Santo hosted two huge media parties during the summer.
"It definitely has brought some traffic in here," said Omar Ocegueda, who owns the bistro with his brother Oden. "This will be the last month, and when the trial's over I'm pretty sure our business will drop off." The modest Good Nite Inn on Veterans Boulevard offered a special of $40 a night for reporters. Now TV stations and journalists are sleeping and broadcasting from the humble hostelry.
"When you consider what the big guys are charging for rooms, 40 bucks is a good rate," assistant manager Tom Aston said. "Now we've got the big satellite trucks and the big names from CNN one or two nights. I don't know if it'll last, but right now it's a big boost for us."
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