This article is prompted by a comment made about our outdoor dining experiment. Here’s the key part of what someone wrote online:
Please you speak up so often on issues where you feel in the right but here you are silent. What is your plan for the businesses that have been impacted by this hasty decision. 2 blocks of Laurel street shut down for maybe 8 restaurants total open.
The street is closed on the 600 block of Laurel in front of Maverick Jacks, Ninos and Del Vitorrio Trattoria (All permanently closed) as well as Sneakers who is open for dinner only. Patxi’s is not using outdoor dining, neither are some of the restaurants on the 700 block. Town is building another monstrosity in front of their restaurant, why do they get a permanent park blocking the laundromat and more stores? Meanwhile the businesses on that street can’t get anyone to go in.
I have seen people say that 70% of tax revenue comes from the restaurants but how much are they truly making. What about all the tax revenue being lost because the other shops who can now open have no business?
What is the city council doing to help these businesses since you as a group were so quick to approve this motion without even a little bit of study on the other businesses involved. Or is this where the city is going to take its time now and do a proper study, causing many of these hard working entrepreneurs their livelihood.from NextDoor
The timing of the post was amazing because it came in while I was meeting with a large number of the business owners on the blocks of Laurel which we converted into a temporary pedestrian mall. I wanted to meet with them after I heard their petition (which was presented to the Council at this week’s meeting) and because I’d been noticing for several days there were few people visiting our impromptu pedestrian mall. Which said, to me, we needed to make some adjustments.
I believe there are some pretty simple ones we could make which would make the experiment work better for more businesses. But let’s start by recapping how we got here.
The Council was well aware of the serious problems the pandemic-induced shutdown was causing. We’d been contacted by a variety of store and restaurant owners about it, too. There was a general desire that we should do something…but it wasn’t obvious what that something should be.
Normally the Council handles that kind of question — figure out what to do — by directing staff to launch a study effort. That involves doing research, talking to other communities, holding community meetings with interested or affected parties, making multiple reports back to Council to seek further guidance/clarification on goals, etc. Sometimes we go further and recruit/appoint a citizens commission to lead the overall effort, too1. Culminating in a major report to Council, discussion about alternatives, guidance to staff on what specifically we want to do, and then further discussion and a vote on the alternatives.
As you might imagine that takes time. A lot of time. Which makes it useless when trying to respond, quickly, to a rapidly-evolving major challenge.
So instead the Council took a different route. It appointed a subcommittee (Mayor Ron Collins and Adam Rak) to work with staff to come up with ideas, quickly. That process was launched in April and by the end of May had resulted in a specific proposal which the Council enacted. It was the subject of several Council discussions before adoption so there was an abbreviated form of the feedback/adjustment we normally use.
Not being on the subcommittee I don’t know precisely what discussions took place or their content. I do know efforts were made to contact different types of business owners, a number of whom provided valuable input. As did the Chamber of Commerce. But it was definitely done on an accelerated time frame because there was a strong desire by the Council to do something quickly. In situations like this an acceptable answer implemented quickly, even if it isn’t the best, is better than a better solution adopted later. Time is critical.
But implicit in that rapid response is the need to adapt, quickly, if things don’t pan out the way you expect them to. That’s where we are right now — we’re figuring out what adjustments to make, and get them made ASAP.
Here’s what I think went wrong: I believe the Council expected to see a significant upsurge in foot traffic as a result of creating a pedestrian mall. I know I did, so I’m to blame for what happened as much as anyone on the dais. The belief was those crowds would partake of outdoor dining…but also spend time shopping in our local stores. Because that’s how malls work — they attract customers with an array of offerings and make it attractive for people to hang out in them, visiting multiple stores and buying multiple products. The extra traffic would offset the loss of parking spaces immediately adjacent to retail shops.
That clearly didn’t happen. It was obvious, to me at least, the first couple of days I checked out the scene (I live nearby and spend a fair amount of time downtown, albeit less due to Covid-19). I’m sure it was equally obvious to my colleagues as well2.
The question then becomes, again, what do we do about it?
Which is why I was meeting with those business owners. I knew they were concerned, and wanted immediate action, but I suspected they weren’t aware no action could be taken until our next meeting, in early July. I wanted to educate them on the concept of special/emergency Council meetings and how to get one called5. I also wanted to offer them some advice on what they should be doing in the interim6, and to give them a chance to share their specific concerns directly with a Council member.
Based on that meeting they’ve modified their focus to include a push for the Council to call a special meeting ASAP to make the corrections.
I’m confident that special meeting will happen very soon7.
We did that with the single family house size effort a few years back. ↩
I don’t know how frequently they visit downtown and we’re not allowed, by law, to discuss matters within our purview outside of a properly agendized meeting. ↩
That’s because the ordinance establishing the program did not grant the city manager authority to make the kinds of changes we are contemplating without Council approval. ↩
Which is actually a rapid response although most people may not think so. Typically an item can take a couple of months to come before us because there are a lot of things we oversee. But this issue was deemed important enough to come back right away. ↩
Short version: convince the mayor and the city manager one is needed. ↩
That boiled down mostly to “keep lobbying the Council.” ↩
Mayor Collins also told me there may be a way to make at least some of the adjustments before the Council takes action. Based on my research I’m not sure that’s possible but it would be great if it is, so I’m all for it. ↩