WATSONVILLE—Ella’s at the Airport opened at Watsonville Municipal Airport in 2015, and since then has garnered a large following of customers.
Owner Ella King, who at the time also owned the popular Cafe Ella, took the building—closed for one year after the previous restaurant was shuttered—and transformed it into a successful California cuisine eatery that has remained profitable even through the slowdown caused by the ongoing pandemic.
Now, with her four sons growing older—the youngest one is 8—she says she is ready to transition away from the business and cede it to a restaurateur she says is perfect for the spot.
But those ambitions hit a snag recently when Airport Director Rayvon Williams refused to allow King’s choice to take over.
King says that Williams justified his decision on “negligible grounds,” telling her that he wanted the new restaurant to be in the same style as Ella’s.
“But that doesn’t matter, because she’s buying Ella’s and the concept,” King said. “She’s an experienced restaurateur, she’s had a restaurant for five years, she’s been in restaurants for over 20 years—that’s all she’s done. She has money in the bank, so she wouldn’t need a (Small Business Administration) loan.”
Williams also told King that the potential owner does not yet have a liquor license, but she pointed out that she didn’t have one either when she opened Ella’s at the Airport. Additionally, liquor licenses are typically transferrable under California law.
The potential owner runs Nancy’s Cafe at Willows-Glenn County Airport near Willows, Calif.
King says she told the city about the potential new owner on Sept. 20, and city officials waited until recently to deny her selection.
“And yet now a woman that is very qualified, they are finding inflated reasons as to why she should not qualify,” King said.
King says that her lease expired on Oct. 31, but the city didn’t give her a new lease to review until Nov. 4, despite having signed a letter of intent on Aug. 30. King did not sign the new lease, meaning she is now on a month-to-month contract.
The future of the business, she says, is up in the air.
“I don’t want to have it go, but at the same time what would any other business owner do,” she said.
Both the previous lease and the new one says the landlord has “sole and unfettered discretion” to decline any assignee, which King calls “onerous verbiage that restricts her ability to sell her personal property.”
It also says the landlord can object on any other grounds.
King says she asked for that language to be removed from her new lease, a request that was denied.
“I said, ‘I don’t like this verbiage; I think that it can be used against me,’” King said. “And sure enough it’s being used against me, again.”
She says another perplexing move by the city was affixing a 1% concession fee on her lease, which she was told was based on gross sales. But such an ask is “inconceivable” for such a small business, she says.
The new lease would also increase her rent from $3,031 to $4,000, plus a $900 bathroom fee.
King says that an attorney specializing in leases is reviewing hers.
The dispute could go to the Watsonville City Council, although King said Thursday that a request for an appeal at the Dec. 14 meeting was denied. She said that city staff gave her neither a reason for the denial nor a date for a possible appeal.
That, she says, was yet another indication that the city does not want to work with her.
“How much more clear can they make it that they do not want me,” she said.
Williams in an email to the Pajaronian said that because of the ongoing negotiations he could not comment on the situation with King.
“The only comment we would make at this time is that the Municipal Airport is committed to ensuring the Airport’s restaurant facility continues to remain a fly-in destination for pilots and a casual dining offering that our larger community can experience and enjoy,” he wrote. “We are in continued discussions with Ella’s-at-the-Airport and look forward to a mutually beneficial resolution regarding the current leasehold.”
King says that being a tenant under Williams can be an extremely challenging proposition because of his unwillingness to work with people during disputes. She went as far as saying that Williams is abusive of the power bestowed upon him by city leaders.
One such power, approved recently by the City Council, was granting Williams the ability to hand down administrative citations for rules violations at his discretion. Though the practice is not uncommon for airports, Watsonville Pilots Association (WPA) President Ryan Ramirez said that it was a major sticking point for many pilots and airport tenants when the proposed 2021 airport regulations opened for public comment earlier this year.
In response to the proposed changes and mounting frustrations with airport management, WPA sent out a survey to airport tenants to get a “temperature reading and really see where everyone stands regarding management at the airport in general,” Ramirez said.
In results presented during the WPA’s Nov. 21 meeting, an overwhelming majority of 126 respondents—115 of which were pilots—said they were mostly unsatisfied with airport operations, and their representation in the department’s decision-making process.
When asked what was one thing they would change about the airport, roughly half highlighted issues with leadership, stringent regulations or airport operations. Some 24% of respondents said they wanted a new airport director.
Ramirez says the results were unsurprising when considering his typical conversations with tenants and pilots that use the airport.
“There’s a perception that there’s very, very strict regulations,” Ramirez said, adding that frustrations started to mount when airport management updated its regulations in 2017. “These changes that are happening now, I think it’s furthering some people’s frustration with a lot of the regulations.”
Ramirez acknowledged that the survey was distributed before the WPA, through the Watsonville Airport Advisory Council, convinced airport management to form a rules and regulations committee to give pilots a chance to give feedback on the proposed changes.
Ramirez says that he plans to put out another survey after the new rules go into effect to see if “any perceptions at all have changed.”
“I would hope [the perception] would change with this current process and the way it’s going now,” Ramirez said.
Williams, who heads the rules committee, said he could not comment on the survey results because the WPA had not shared them with his office.
While complaints have mounted against Williams—including a recent dispute between him and a longtime business that led to a pricey lawsuit in which a judge ruled against the city—airport operations have undoubtedly improved since his hire in 2011.
Under his leadership, the airport became fiscally stable and broke off from Public Works to become its own department in 2015. His office has also scored multiple large federal grants—totaling at least $3 million—to refurbish many of the airport’s runways and update its planning documents. In addition, Williams has helped produce multiple community events such as the Fire in the Sky fireworks show and airport open house.
Perhaps most importantly, he has helped turn the airport into a regional economic catalyst by bringing in new businesses such as GoJump Santa Cruz and spurring the development of the highly-successful Watsonville Hangar business complex.
According to a report, the airport’s overall annual contribution to the regional economy was estimated at $67 million in 2019. The airport was also directly responsible for some 242 jobs and has a long waiting list for prospective hangar tenants.
Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker added that getting the airport to operate in the black, without the support of the city’s general fund, was no small accomplishment—the airport’s fund balance last year was more than $650,000.
“I think under his tenure, the airport operations have really thrived,” said Huffaker, who called Williams one of the best and most well-respected directors for small municipal airports in the state.
When Williams took over, Huffaker says, he had the goal of bringing the airport “into the 21st Century.” That not only meant making the aforementioned physical upgrades to the airport, but also bringing its operations, regulations and contracts up to standard.
“In the process of doing so, Rayvon has had to navigate a lot of opinions and ideas as to how those new regulations should be rolled out and implemented, and, really, how to move forward with everyone’s collective interests ensuring the long-term sustainability of the airport,” Huffaker said. “In so doing, some of the changes are not always welcomed by pilots on the field, but I would contend [they] have been necessary to ensuring an equitable operation at the airport.”