Friday Family Fun Nights & A Social District: The Bottom Line

Downtown New Bern Street Closures

In New Bern over the past few months, the public-at-large became aware Swiss Bear (SB), the Chamber of Commerce, Craven County Tourism Development Authority (TDA), and the Downtown Business Council appointed a Social District Committee to work on establishing a social district in all of the downtown area and extend to Five Points. The merits that legally drinking alcohol in the streets would increase business and enhance tourism, posted on Swiss Bear’s website, generated much controversy and public outcry by downtown business owners, residents, and the community-at-large.

Their major concern and probability (had there not been an outcry) was the Social District Committee’s request to establish a social district would be approved by the current Board of Aldermen. However, with an election several weeks away, at the April 24 Board of Aldermen meeting, Sabrina Bengal, Alderman Ward 1, (SB and TDA board member, major downtown property, restaurant and bar owner), read the following statement submitted by the Social Districts Committee:

“After meeting with the public and hearing about trash problems and late-night behavioral issues in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, the Social District Committee believes that our immediate priority should be focused on solutions to these issues. Although the committee plans to revisit social districts at a later time, we have heard the concerns of downtown residents and any future proposal would address those concerns.” – by The Social Districts Committee

However, that statement is not posted on Swiss Bear’s website and information on establishing a social district and how to get it passed was expanded to include a list of eight “Benefits of Having a Social District,” i.e., increased tourism, offers a broad social and cultural experience and opportunities to create events, encourage business growth and new businesses, and my favorite … Anecdotally, people drink more responsibly if they are mobile rather than stationary. This list of other cities experiences: Most report minimal or no increase in crime … Almost every district reports drastic increases in tax and merchant revenue … and, most who conducted trial districts, grow them…

This is pure hyperbole and begs the question, is this the best they can do to sell/convince the public, the freedom to openly walk the streets with a 12– to 16-ounce alcoholic beverage in a compostable plastic cup of alcohol is going to increase tourism? Well, I think it is, and that they think they don’t need to do any better, because the decisions they are making that affects and impacts on downtown, for the most part, are being approved by the Aldermen, in spite of, or without, community input.

On February 28, City Manager Foster Hughes, received an email from Swiss Bear’s Executive Director … “there were 40+ people in attendance at the last Thursday’s Down Business Council meeting and the overwhelming consensus was to have street closures every Friday night as it is easier for the public to remember. Saturday dates are sprinkled in when there is a special event … Swiss Bear is going to try to arrange for as much programming as possible on closure evenings, and to do that, we need to partner with the city and private organizations/businesses.” Danny Batton’s follow-up March 9 email to the City Manager, “the vote was strongly in favor of street closings, 40+ people were in attendance.”

On March 22, the Board of Aldermen unanimously approved their request:  Middle Street’s 200-300 block, Pollock Street’s, 300-400 block, and the 200 block of Craven Street from Morgan’s Tavern to Pollock Street to vehicular traffic every Friday from 5 to 10:30 p.m. (or 12:30 p.m. on Artwalk) for the rest of the year, with a sprinkling of Saturdays, including camp weekends, some of the busiest days of the summer.

The Aldermen approved the closure of approximately 175 parking spaces on those Streets. requiring an earlier closing for set-up every time a street is closed with no consideration of the impact it will have on the downtown economy. Parking is the glue that holds downtown together. Although the closings may be random, and mostly the two blocks of Middle Street, approximately 84 – 90 spaces, the loss of revenue is still a valid concern.

Visitors and local shoppers, upon which so much of the downtown economy depends on, are already taxed to the maximum and the availability of public off-street parking is limited. Downtown’s on-street parking spaces generate revenue for downtown businesses, especially retailers. Based on the 2007 Lanier Parking Study (Commissioned by the city) spaces typically turn over every hour and a half or two hours, and every turnover equates to dollars spent. Closed streets reduce/eliminate any opportunity for turnover and the loss of revenue is significant.

The loss of revenue with streets closings is a valid concern by business owners. For that very reason, in past years street closures were kept to a minimum. Exceptions were MumFest, commemorative, holiday events, and parades. The Downtown Business Council and the many business owners and merchants worked to develop strategies and activities, like Artwalk, gallery concerts, and grand openings, designed to attract people into their stores and galleries, not out into the streets. The Merchant’s Association’s mission was to “make cash registers ring,” while Swiss Bear and the city focused on public improvements and enhancements. The TDA worked to attract conventions and attract visitors, and the Chamber on business recruitment, and the Visitor Information Center provided information to assist visitors.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the mindset anymore. It now appears to be one of indifference by the downtown leadership who are bent on pushing through their own agenda, with the city’s support. The retailers don’t have a management advantage and are being chastised when they voice their concerns. The prevailing attitude of downtown organizations, a number of business owners, including several of the restaurant and bar owners, is, “you’re on your own to bring customers inside” (hard to do when the streets are closed), and “you can close or relocate.”  And I am sorry to say, that is what is happening. And as shops close, they are quickly being filled with restaurants, bars, and night clubs.

In regard to the Friday Fun Night expenses, which must be costly, who is picking up the tab for labor, a chess board and/or other games, and other expenses? Are the organizations or the city paying for them out of the general fund or with MSD tax dollars that all property owners in the MSD district (bounded by both rivers, Broad and Hancock Streets) to fund downtown public improvements and enhancement projects. Swiss Bear coordinates the MSD Advisory Committee and makes recommendations to the city on the use of those funds. There is no city link or information on the MSD on the website, nor is there any information/minutes on Swiss Bear’s website on how that money is being appropriated.

When all is said and done, what will Friday Family Fun Nights in the streets actually accomplish? What is the objective? Why the additional expense of labor and games? Why are parking spaces being eliminated routinely? Friday nights, until now, were lined with parked cars, pedestrians filled the sidewalks … shoppers, diners, theatre-goers, visiting art galleries, bars, and restaurants. What was wrong with that? Or, since there is little transparency taking place, was it really devised as a strategy to allow pedestrian traffic to stroll the streets with a drink in hand, counting on the Aldermen’s approval of a social district?

The bottom line for me. It is about electing and appointing members of the community who will make decisions for the greater good of the community, not for the greater good of a few. The sooner, the better.

By Susan Moffat-Thomas, retired Swiss Bear Executive Director