The Fontana City Council on June 11 approved a controversial proposal to provide $400,000 to help the Fontana Woman's Club open a restaurant at its clubhouse in the downtown area.
The vote was 3-1, with Mayor Acquanetta Warren and Councilmembers John Roberts and Jesse Armendarez approving the idea. Jesse Sandoval voted no, and Phillip Cothran recused himself because his business is located near the site.
Proponents said the new restaurant would bring jobs and economic growth to the city, but opponents questioned whether it was the right use for the historic building.
"The Woman's Club is proposing to open up a high-quality upscale restaurant and has requested financial assistance from the city in order to retrofit the building to accommodate the restaurant while also preserving the historical character of the building," said Deputy City Manager Debbie Brazill during the meeting.
The proposed restaurant was identified in the staff report as Spaggi's, which serves upscale Italian cuisine.
The clubhouse, located at 16880 Seville Avenue (across from City Hall), was constructed in 1925 as a location for the Woman's Club to meet and to hold community events. In 1995, the building was designated by the City Council as a local historic resource and a city landmark.
Heather Gourlay, the current president of the club, said the clubhouse is in constant need of repairs.
"Our current board has a vision to offer more to the community, more than just a hall for rent," Gourlay said. "We seek the funding to preserve and update our building and offer an exclusive catered events venue and restaurant. We have overwhelming support from a majority of our membership to see this vision come to fruition."
She added: "The Fontana Woman's Club has no plans to ever sell our building or change its history or charm."
Brazill said the agreement between the city and the club would mean that the club will agree to hire about five employees upon the opening of the business 18 months from now and continue to keep employed five to nine persons during the entirety of a 10-year term starting on Dec. 11, 2020.
Sandoval said he had concerns about the proposal.
"I'd like to support the Woman's Club; I think it's a great organization," he said, but he added that he didn't have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.
"We should make sure that we have all our i's dotted and t's crossed before we spend taxpayers' money," he said, noting that $400,000 is "not a small amount."
His request that the vote be delayed until the next meeting was denied.
Sandoval as well as some residents (including Woman's Club members) who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting wanted to know whether a non-profit group was allowed to start a commercial for-profit business at the site.
"The deed to the building states … that the building is not permitted to carry on the business of financial profit nor permitted to accumulate funds for any financial profit," said Karen Coleman, who has repeatedly criticized the way the club has been run in recent years.
The staff report said the proposed project will not cause a substantial adverse change to the significance of the Woman's Club as a historical resource.
But Darlene Scalf said that the original integrity of the building and grounds will be "severely compromised."
"One must assume the small kitchen will be made much bigger, and the performing arts stage will be removed? And will the bench made of cement and rocks by (Fontana founder) A.B. Miller in the area of Fontana's very first park be removed to make room for more parking?" Scalf said.
"According to the Woman's Club bylaws, if the building is ever no longer to be used for the club, it must be given to another nonprofit. And a restaurant is not a nonprofit!"
Scalf said that a much better use of the building would be to transform it into a museum focusing on Fontana's history.