Late notice, lack of communication riled Main Street’s biggest merchants, including Mast General
By RON AIKEN
With literally years to plan for the eclipse, the City of Columbia waited until late Friday afternoon before the Aug. 21 event to let concerned Main Street merchants know their employees and customers would have to pay $10 for weekend parking in city-owned garages that otherwise is free throughout the year.
The Soda City Market and Mast General, particularly, benefit from free public parking on Saturdays and steer both their customers and employees to those lots to free up on-street parking. In emails obtained by Quorum, Soda City Market director Emile DeFelice and Mast General Store manager Jeremy Becraft and other stakeholders express significant disappointment, frustration and anger over learning about the proposed $10 charge (later reduced to $5 following conversations with City manager Teresa Wilson, Becraft and others).
“Everyone knows Friday pm is a great time to release bad news, which is I guess what (the City of Columbia’s) Parking (Department) expects Matt (Kennell of the City Center Partnership) to do, as he reported ‘total stonewalling’ despite repeated requests for information,” DeFelice wrote at 4:52 p.m. in an email to Wilson, Mayor Steve Benjamin and many more. “Where will the vendors even park? I guess on Main St. in front of Mast when they do the math, since they’ll beat everyone down here.
“That’ll be interesting. It’s the City’s rule, which we enforce, that they park in the garage. We cannot be expected to have no opportunity to inform them and then force them into this sucker punch.”
“The City said that the rationale was to get more people on bikes/buses and out of cars … How many people over the age of 15 are even able to bike up 45 degree hills in 100 degree weather??? Hell, I’m in shape and there’s no way I’m getting on a bike. And since we have but a shell of a public transport system that few people even know how to use, expecting everyone to learn — with no known reason to all of the sudden do that — on a random Saturday and Sunday morning is just fantasy land. People will get in their cars, alright, and drive straight back home. Mission accomplished, I guess.”
At 5:05 p.m., Bourbon owner Kristian Niemi responded to DeFelice’s email.
“$10?,” Niemi wrote. “Why is this the first we’ve even heard of this? Is this some sort of bad joke? Bikes and buses???”
No one was more frustrated, emails show, than Kennell.
At 2:17, Kennell wrote Becraft about the fee.
“I just got off the phone with Missy Gentry at the City on this,” Kennell wrote. “We learned only from the WIS story last night.
“Apparently it has been on the Eclipse web site but we did not know that. We requested detailed information to share last evening but have not received it.”
Minutes later, at 2:25 p.m., Kennell’s frustration was growing in an email to Becraft, DeFelice and Jenna Bridgers of the City Center Partnership.
“No communication with us on their plans,” Kennell wrote. “We have protested loudly.”
Both DeFelice and Niemi credit Becraft for first alerting fellow merchants and raising awareness about the issue that, Becraft said, significantly affected his and others’ business.
“I found out Thursday night from the WIS story,” Becraft told Quorum. “Just a week-and-a-half ago I called the Parking Authority and they told me there would be no change to how the Taylor Street and Sumter Street garages would be manned, which told me they’d be free.
“Then I called Friday and was told about the $10 deal, which they did responsibly drop to $5. I don’t have enough parking for all my employees on the weekends, and they use the garage. We got angry calls from our customers, and I know a lot of other businesses did, too.
“I invested a lot in that weekend, Emile invested a lot, extending the market on Saturday and doing another function Sunday. A lot of other businesses also put a lot into that weekend, and this came out of left field for us. It was very unfair for the retailers. I could understand charging on Monday, but doing so on Saturday and Sundays just hurt local businesses.”
Late Friday afternoon, after emails were flying between the Mayor, City manager, Kennel and key merchants, Elle Matney, Parking Services Administrator, issued an email at 2:39 that did little to calm tempers.
“We understand the interest of Eclipse Weekend Parking since the WIS story yesterday,” Matney wrote. “However, Parking Services has communicated via press releases, Solar Eclipse webpage, City Webpage, The State News and twitter of the weekend parking plans for Eclipse Weekend.
” … an update will be sent shortly to business leaders, restating that of which has been in the media for some time.”
Becraft said relying on merchants to have visited the City’s eclipse page or have seen a 240-word write-up in The State back on Aug. 12 rather than communicating directly with merchants was a serious mistake, especially since Matney was a no-show to a quarterly Main Street Merchants meeting on July 25 where she was scheduled to speak to about 40 people.
“That would have been the perfect time to let us know about the parking plans so we could make arrangements,” Becraft said. “But she didn’t show.”
A further concern to merchants was the fact that the City demanded “cash only” to pay for parking without issuing receipts or having the kind of controls in place at the garages, one witness alleges, to maintain financial integrity at cash-heavy events.
“I saw how they were running the cash and handling it, and having handled hundreds of events where a lot of cash is collected, there was nothing to ensure a proper accounting,” said the source who wished to remain anonymous. “No receipts, no third-party verification. There’s no way to know that whatever they report was how much they collected. No way at all.”
In a response to a request from Quorum seeking the total amount collected, Matney gave a precise figure.
“Parking Services collected $15,344 over the entire event weekend,” Matney wrote in an email. “Said revenue will offset the expenses Parking Services incurred to better enhance the ability to move the increased number of visitors expected over the weekend. Such expenses include, event staffing, deck maintenance/cleanliness, security, signage & supplies, etc.”
“Overall we received wonderful feedback from both parkers and our business community. Major events often offer challenges and don’t work smoothly, yet we work through them in order to achieve success.”
For Becraft, the experience left a sour taste.
“The parking situation was very unfortunate,” Becraft said. “I really think the City needs to correct how they operate and fix what led to this debacle. (Matney) needs to do a better job at building relationships with people. It seemed like a money grab with no concern for how it would affect retailers.
“I think we can all learn from this, because Main Street merchants want to solve problems and make downtown a better place. Hopefully we can grow from this and improve.”
“Communication was terrible,” Niemi said. “But what else is new. I think once people found a place to park, our downtown is very walkable. We just tend to forget it because we’re lazy and it’s hot.
“But you know, the City can put all this in a notebook for the next time an eclipse comes around. Maybe then they’ll know what to do.”