Nestle USA’s announcement last week that it was moving its PowerBar business from Berkeley to Glendale, Calif., has received mixed reactions from the local community.
While city officials say that they’d rather the business stayed in Berkeley, there are those for whom the news was music to the ears.
PowerBar’s controversial 26-foot-wide sign atop their downtown office on Shattuck Avenue has been a source of constant complaints from Berkeley residents ever since it was first installed in December 1997.
“Residents were furious that they had no say in the matter when the sign got approved in mid-1997. By the time we challenged it, it was too late. We were stuck with a blinking sign on the rooftop of the tallest building in Berkeley. The Design Review Commission actually said the sign would improve the ugly building. Instead, it has blighted downtown for the last eight years. It is true that the business brought as many as 100 jobs to the city, but the sign did very little to contribute to the aesthetics of downtown Berkeley,” said Jim Sharp, a Berkeley resident who championed the cause of removing the sign.
Constant complaints from residents brought a stop to the blinking, but the sign remained, causing the business to be nicknamed “PowerBlight.”
Councilmember Dona Spring, in whose district the PowerBar office is located, said that although PowerBar’s move would mean a loss to Berkeley, its sign had certainly been unpopular with people living in the hills.
“The sign was like an obstruction for the panoramic views of the bay. It created quite a bit of controversy during the [Mayor] Shirley Dean administration. There are a lot of people who will be happy to see the sign taken off,” she said.
Spring added that when PowerBar had first started off in 1986 under Brian Maxwell, a UC Berkeley alumnus and former track coach, it had started a natural food movement like no other.
“It was a huge change from the sugary high-fat candy bars that were available at that time. Their bars were high in nutrition and protein and at the same time one of the best kinds of energy bars available. PowerBar was undoubtedly a trend-setter.”
Spring also said that Berkeley has always been the incubator for a lot of start-ups which went on to become hugely successful in the future. “With success comes the need to expand, to share common resources. It is therefore no surprise that PowerBar is moving.”
Although there has been much speculation on the fact that the move was being made to make up for the lack of space that was needed to expand the business, PowerBar spokesperson Vanessa Wager told the Planet that this was not the case.
“It’s not because of space constraints, it’s a strategic move which will benefit the business. After PowerBar was acquired by Nestle in 2000, it remained as a satellite office in Berkeley. We feel the need to be closer to headquarters,” she said.
Wager added that “the transfer of the PowerBar business to Glendale will capitalize on PowerBar's proximity to personnel and other shared resources from Nestle Nutrition and Nestle USA, providing a ready source of ideas and innovation to support strong long-term business growth. Our goal is to continue providing consumers with the product and service excellence they have come to expect from PowerBar.”
The transition is scheduled to begin over the next five months and transferring employees will be settled in Glendale by November 15, 2006. The downtown office will be officially closed on Dec. 31.
Although the majority of PowerBar Berkeley employees are being offered positions in the new office in Glendale, there will be a certain amount of layoffs in the consolidation of activities with Glendale’s Nestlé Nutrition and Nestlé USA staffs. Those whose positions are being affected by this move will be given generous severance packages by the company.
In a statement, Cliff Clive, vice president and general manager of Nestle Performance Nutrition, said that although the decision to relocate had been difficult, the move was necessary in order to “best position PowerBar and the broader Performance Nutrition business for what we know will be a very exciting future.”
“We’re sorry that PowerBar is leaving,” commented Cisco de Vries, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates. “We understand that they are moving to Glendale to be closer to their parent company, Nestle. However, this move should not bring about any major economical change for the city. We’d rather that PowerBar stayed in Berkeley. But this is part of what Berkeley is known for. A lot of companies which start off here are bought by bigger companies and then with their growth and prosperity feel the need to relocate. It was probably the same with PowerBar,” he said.
De Vries added that although it was not certain who would be taking over the vacant space yet, there was no doubt about the fact that it would be leased soon.
“The fact that the PowerBar building is so close to the UC Berkeley campus will definitely make it a prime location. Recently Yahoo! opened up a research section on University Avenue. A lot of companies are interested to move into downtown Berkeley. The mayor’s office gets calls from interested parties all the time,” he said.
Berkeley-based PowerBar rival ClifBar is also considering a move in 2008. Kate Torgersen, assistant communications manager for ClifBar, told the Planet that the reason for the move was lack of space.
“We love our current location in West Berkeley but we have simply outgrown our facilities. In our RFP, we have mentioned that we want a green building, which will have minimal impact on the environment and allow us to have recreational space. We want to stay in the Bay Area and right now one possibility could be Alameda,” Torgersen said.
According to Councilmember Spring, ClifBar had wanted a child care center in its current West Berkeley location but had been denied a permit by the city.
“The ClifBar office is located close to Pacific Steel Casting Company, which has been cited by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for leaks of toxic substances. The city does not think that this is a safe place for children. However, there are two playing fields in the vicinity which state the dangers of toxic fumes on children. So it’s not that that the public is not being warned. There is also a halfway house for the homeless on Harrison Street. The city should not treat ClifBar employees differently. They should be given all the information and should decide for themselves whether it is safe to bring the children in there. Holding up the permit to build is not the solution,” she said.