Jeff Jardine

State parks name protection bill strikes fear into Columbia candy maker

Umpqua Bank in Columbia State Park in Columbia, Ca, on Thursday, February, 5, 2015.
Umpqua Bank in Columbia State Park in Columbia, Ca, on Thursday, February, 5, 2015. aalfaro@modbee.com

The trademark quagmire that compelled the National Parks Service to change the names of some of Yosemite’s most well-known businesses compelled state Assembly members Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, Adam Gray, D-Merced, and Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, to pitch Assembly Bill 2249.

Co-authored by Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, the bill is aimed at preventing concessionaires from hijacking trademarks in California State Parks in the same manner Delaware North claimed the rights to iconic names like the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and even Yosemite National Park.

But at least one longtime concessionaire in Columbia State Historic Park, north of Sonora, finds the state’s pre-emptive bill unsettling and even downright scary. Why? Because as written, AB 2249 would confiscate the intellectual properties and trademarks of existing individual concessionaires to discourage companies from claiming ownership of a park’s cultural heritage. The bill’s language, Cooley and Gray agree, needs to be tweaked and amended.

Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen has been a tourist favorite on Columbia State Park’s Main Street since the 1920s. Columbia became a state park in the mid-1940s. The Nelson family bought the business in 1940 and continues to operate it today.

Some elements of AB 2249 captured third-generation owner Janice Nelson’s attention in a major way, including this passage in particular: “Furthermore, a concessionaire who makes a legal claim to have that trademark right should be disqualified from future consideration as a bidder.”

Translated, the bill now states the Nelsons and other business owners within the park cannot claim trademark ownership of their own brand, which in the Candy Kitchen’s case was built over a 94-year span – and will be booted out if they try.

“That’s what scared me,” Janice Nelson said. “There was no other explanation. It’s really a concern for a concessionaire.”

Nelson spoke Monday with Cooley, who assured her the language targets concessionaires like Delaware North – not to seize the names and intellectual properties of small business owners like herself, whose Candy Kitchen bears the family name.

“It was intended to protect the kinds of places you’d see on topographic maps,” Cooley said

Both he and Gray confirmed the bill’s language will be altered, perhaps in the form of an exemption to businesses that predated the establishment of the state parks. But even that could get challenged. Umpqua Bank maintains a small branch a few doors down from Nelson’s Candy Kitchen. The state certainly cannot claim name ownership of a bank headquartered in Oregon simply because it has a branch in Columbia or any other state park.

“Umpqua Bank has an economic vitality that is independent of the concession,” Cooley said.

So does the Candy Kitchen, which also maintains stores in Sonora and Murphys. Still, you can’t blame Nelson for the way she reacted because the State Parks System tried more than a decade ago to gain control of her trademark and more, forcing her to take a huge gamble with her business. The Candy Kitchen and other concessionaires in the state parks must bid for their store spaces every decade. In 2005, the state issued a request for proposal for her store space.

“They wanted us to sign over the rights to our trademark and intellectual properties, including our recipes,” she said. “So we didn’t bid.”

The state wanted ownership of the business name and recipes to ensure that if Nelson or her family ever decided to relinquish the popular business, a new owner could come in and run it similarly. Assemblyman Cooley said he was shocked to hear that. Many of their recipes are made just as they were when the Candy Kitchen opened nearly a century ago.

Cooley pointed out that if the state gained ownership of the recipes, any other candy maker would be able to obtain them merely by filing a California Public Records Act request, paying only the per-page printing costs. The Nelsons would get nothing.

“We don’t own our building,” Nelson said. “We just have our business. We can’t give up our name, recipes and intellectual properties. That is what we have, what we are.”

Hence, the gamble that no one else would bid on the building, which would have forced her to move. No one did. The state eventually came back to her with another contract lacking the intellectual property provisions. Nelson signed. The lease expired in August. She’s been renting on a month-to-month basis, awaiting the new invitation to bid again for another decade.

Cooley recently drafted an oversight handbook as a state guide to monitoring the state’s departments, their operations and their spending practices that, he said, the legislature had gotten away from in recent decades.

“This (the state park department’s tactics) is the kind of thing that needs oversight,” he said.

Similar to what AB 2249 just received from a Gold Country candy maker.

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