2018-09-13 / Front Page

Downtown business owners complain of tough times, ask for city’s support

By SPARKY NEWSOME
editor and publisher

Penny Warren, owner of The Jockey Club, a full service restaurant on The Square, questioned the council’s periodic closing of The Square to allow various events to be held there. She specifically complained that events on both last Friday and Saturday evenings had The Square closed to traffic and therefore caused her business to suffer. On Friday evening, the Pedaling for Paws event was held and on Saturday the fall Cruise-In was held.

She said she “fully supports” Pedaling for Paws but suggested that it be relocated to some other place. She objected to the fact that the Cruise-In included vendors selling food and reported that one grill was set up about 15 feet from the front door of The Jockey Club.

“Over the weekend, we lost hundreds of dollars of revenue and those vendors do not pay sales tax,” Warren said. “So not only did we, as a business, lose revenue, but the city lost revenue as well.”

Warren and others praised Washington’s Main Street Director Elizabeth Elliott as “a tremendous asset” and “probably the best hire that y’all have made so far.” However, she said, sometimes she had rather go straight to City Hall. “You guys have to be more available, and you have to be more approachable,” she said to the members of the council. “You have to be willing to work with your business merchants.”

Warren further observed that the city allows her business a five percent decrease in rates for city services while new businesses are given an even better incentive. “So it would be better for me to sell my business or close my business, open up under a new name and get a 20 percent decrease for the first year. The electric incentive you are giving to new businesses should be passed down to existing businesses.”

She asked that the city be willing to work with the business owners, and she asked when was the last time any of the council members had been to her restaurant. Councilman Maceo Mahoney said he had been there earlier that day, and Councilman Nathaniel Cullars said he had been about a week ago.

“The downtown district is struggling with over six businesses considering closing,” Warren said. “We need your support. If the businesses close downtown, there is no downtown. If there’s no downtown, there is no city, and without a city, we don’t need a city council or a city government.”

Councilman Marion Tutt spoke up to suggest that the city reevaluate its policies on incentives for businesses both new and existing. “If we don’t have a downtown,” he said, “you ain’t got nothing. That’s just the bottom line. Let’s at least take a look at the electric rates and see what we can do to help small businesses.”

The council agreed to “get together on it,” according to Mayor Ames Barnett, and report back at a later date.

Joel Eisler, an owner of Bee Southern, pointed out to the council that the business district of Washington extends far beyond the downtown area.

“The situation affecting businesses is lack of local support,” Eisler said and he reported that an email response to that concern had been “We can’t make people shop or eat in Washington.” He agreed that nobody can do that.

“What we can do,” he continued, “is be patient and not have a kneejerk reaction.” He suggested that good, give-and-take communication between city officials and business owners, rather than putting the burden on just the Main Street Director, would be helpful.

In that regard, it was announced that a meeting will be held this Thursday, September 13, at 9 a.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall to address the concerns of all the businesses “as to what’s going on and what we can do,” Barnett said. Eisler issued a special invitation to council members saying, “We want to see your faces. That’s what we mean by local support.

“We don’t care if you buy anything in our shops,” he continued, “that’s not the point. The point is that you hear our concerns, one-on-one, and that you understand where we’re coming from.”

Kelli Eisler, the other owner of Bee Southern, said “we are struggling and some of us are in crisis. I am here to ask for stronger leadership from elected officials in leadership positions, for more engagement,” she said. “This is about [your] playing an active role, knowing the owners, knowing our stores, stopping in from time to time to see how things are going, and having some type of relationship and communication that can benefit both sides.”

She commented that the example set by council members could go a long way in support of small businesses.

“Leadership does not fall on one person. Hiring [Elliott] was a great thing. She checks in on us, she asks what our needs are, and she has organized some wonderful events and countless other positive changes. She is a gem but she is not the only leader. She should not be the only one checking in. Good leadership support is from all elected officials and others in leadership positions,” Eisler said.

Jeremy Frazier, owner of CJ’s Pizzeria, reported that for the first time in five years he had been forced to go to the bank and ask for extra time to pay his rent “because my electric bill for my one little building with very little equipment was close to $1,000.” He suggested, after a very hard summer, that perhaps the city could offer “three months of a good electric rate just so we can save maybe $1,000 to put in our bank account and pay our bills.”

Frazier commented that summers have always been hard and they are getting harder and harder.

“I think there are miscommunications going both ways, but all we ask is that you hear us,” he said. “Washington is great but it’s not perfect. All the businesses are really, really struggling on The Square.”

Barnett again assured the business owners in attendance that the council will address their concerns, listen to their ideas, and have some response at the next regular council meeting.

In other business:

The council authorized the mayor to invite the county and other Wilkes municipalities to participate in a meeting to discuss service delivery strategies.

The council approved the 2018 tax millage rate at 8.863 which would leave the city at “revenue neutral” after a slight decrease in property tax values. A public hearing on the matter was held just prior to the council’s regular meeting.

Use of The Square was approved for the Cancer Walk on Saturday, October 13, from 10-11 a.m.; the First Baptist Church’s Love Washington event from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday, October 20; and First Baptist’s Jason Chapman 5K from 6:30-11 a.m. on Saturday, October 27.

A decision on the requested use of the city parking lot on West Robert Toombs Avenue for a “Food Truck Fare” on October 20 was tabled until more details are available.

Acting as Mayor Pro Tem, Mahoney closed the meeting after Barnett had to leave for another engagement.

Mahoney thanked those in attendance for being there. “If there’s anything we can do, please contact us,” he said. “We are approachable and we are very concerned.”

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