A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
According to my dusty e-mail records, the first manifestation of downtown “merchant mixer” meetings came in late summer of 2007 when Dr. Curtis Peters, then the co-owner of Gallery on Pearl (as well as a Vintage Fire Museum stalwart) convened a meeting at Treet’s (now Adrienne & Co.) to discuss Harvest Homecoming’s effects on downtown business owners.
I wasn’t a downtown business owner just yet; however, Bank Street Brewhouse (BSB) planning was getting under way, and it came to fruition in 2009, by which time the merchant mixer morning coffee meetings were becoming more of an established institution, albeit still quite informal.
My concurrent tenure on the boards of Develop New Albany (DNA) and the Urban Enterprise Association (UEA) ran roughly from 2008 through 2010, when I resigned from both, primarily because BSB’s newborn needs threatened to overwhelm me, but also in protest of then-mayor Doug England’s efforts to render both these entities into a captive appendage of City Hall.
The culmination of these takeover efforts came in the fall of 2011, when the Sherman Minton Bridge was closed for repairs. The story can be found reprinted here (From 2011 and 2015: Regaining consciousness in a city “coming” to? Or, the infamous Come to City marketing fiasco of 2011), and I recommend you pause and read it.
This specific meeting in 2011 was the direct impetus for the New Albany Restaurant and Bar Association (NARBA), as several of us were determined that never again would there be such a thing as Come to City.
Here’s a teaser -- and it’s now six years, not five:
Almost five years have passed, and yes, the local independent business community has utterly failed to unite for the common good – if it had, then Irv Stumler and Jim Padgett would be unable to divide it with anti-Speck lies.
But as this unpleasantness clearly illustrates, New Albany’s political classes are the sole entities to profit from the division of business. City Hall and political parties cannot be trusted to facilitate unity when division suits them better. We must do it ourselves.
It bears noting that since Jeff Gahan came to office in 2012, he has succeeded in streamlining where England failed. The UEA is safely docile, purged and swaddled in-house, and DNA’s current role in all of it ... well, it brings me back to the merchant mixer meetings.
Eventually Dr. Peters closed the gallery, and the fire museum moved to Jeffersonville. By then, there had been much growth within the downtown business community, and a new generation of owner-operators, many of them in retail, stepped forward to organize the meetings. By 2015, the merchant mixer meetings had become a monthly fixture.
Now we’re midway through 2016, and since I’m not skilled at mincing words, let’s come right out and say it: DNA has annexed the merchant mixer meetings. You needn’t take my word for it.
Rather, the mayor himself will explain, as he did at the Pillar Awards in June.
"A lot of chemistry" is how New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan describes the relationship between Develop New Albany and the city's downtown business community.
In celebration of the fruits of that relationship, Gahan thanked DNA and its partners for nourishing historic downtown at the 2016 DNA Pillar Awards held on Thursday in the Calumet Club on Spring Street.
"DNA does a lot of things to protect our history and our downtown. They also preserve our downtown uniqueness, and we have a lot of people to thank for that," Gahan said. "But at the same time, DNA urges us to move forward. They encourage us to improve and more importantly, they challenge us to grow."
Verily, Dr. Goebbels never resorted to hyperbole of this effusive (and mistaken) degree, but so it goes in the Magic Kingdom of New Gahania. It should be clear that I emphatically disagree with such an assessment of DNA as originator of all downtown good, primarily because it simply isn’t true.
Not at all, although I have cause to hope for better results. First, we need to be very clear about something. It keeps being swept under the Down Low Bunker's tattered rug, and shouldn't be.
What has happened downtown during the past decade owes almost entirely to the time, effort and investment of small, independent business owners and operators, and a smaller number of contractors and builders, all of whom should be incredulous (and annoyed) to learn that DNA made it all possible.
Deep breath time.
Let’s pause again to consider what DNA actually is supposed to be doing. Just prior to DNA taking credit for downtown revitalization (Joseph – is that you again?), the lead paragraph at its website reads …
Develop New Albany was founded in 1990 by community-minded individuals and local business leaders. The leadership of Develop New Albany focuses the organization on the economic revitalization, historic preservation, and promotion of our Historic Downtown. As a volunteer-based organization, Develop New Albany accomplishes this mission by adhering to the tenants of the National and Indiana Main Street models, which focus on the areas of economic restructuring, design, promotion, and organization.
I’m very glad they mentioned National Main Street’s Four Point approach, which always has possessed merit, and at the present time is being “refreshed” to bring its goals up to date.
Will these ideas (guys, it's not restructuring any longer, but vitality) ever seep down to us? We can only hope.
The community development field has changed dramatically over the course of the past three and a half decades. In many ways, new trends in planning, development, and preservation build off principles that those in the Main Street network have long understood: that revitalization must be inclusive and representative of the community, that a place’s distinctive characteristics and older and historic buildings are its greatest assets, and that fostering a strong local-business environment creates enormous rewards.
National Main Street hopes to correct certain errant conditions.
Many Main Street programs tend to focus too much time and effort on the components of the Main Street Approach where they may feel most comfortable, and where they can have the most visible impact in a short period of time – most often, Design and Promotion. As a result, many programs report that they struggle to be recognized as serious revitalization organizations and reach key revitalization benchmarks.
In short, event-planning has become the focus of many such organizations, and this can cause them to lose focus on the bigger picture. National Main Street is on it.
As has been the case in the past, Main Streets will be encouraged to engage a wide range of local stakeholders in developing a vision of success for their downtown or neighborhood commercial districts. Main Streets will then be urged to develop cross-cutting Community Transformation Strategies that are connected to meaningful, longterm change. Progress will be measured in a variety of ways, including through economic metrics and qualitative assessment.
I cannot emphasize the importance of downtown independent business owners taking a few minutes to read these two National Main Street documents, and to consider how useful they'd be if applied to New Albany.
Taking the charitable point of view, I’ll assume that DNA is indeed capable of making the transition to National Main Street’s “new-think,” even if it never really mastered the previous schemata. And, to be fair, it’s always been a genuine conundrum for DNA.
DNA’s membership-driven approach hasn’t been successful, and often is the cause of derision in the community, as was manifested at the July merchant mixer when it was suggested that downtown merchants cannot benefit from promotion at Jingle Walk without first having a membership in DNA.
Of course, DNA receives at least some money from taxpayers, and accordingly, it should not ever be in the position of excluding taxpayers, but this stance subsequently has been modified.
It’s also important to note that National Main Street itself actively discourages reliance on membership-driven models, for this reason and others.
DNA as originally chartered was directly tethered to funding provided by the UEA in the form of a shared executive director, a situation that changed ten years ago when Nick Cortolillo retired and DNA’s leadership promptly seceded from the only clear funding mechanism it ever possessed rather than have Mike Ladd as its director.
On top of this oddity, DNA has been chronically under-financed by a succession of City Halls, which forever seek to reference the organization’s awesome transformational activities without ever funding it to achieve anything truly transformational (or awesome), which in practice means that little transformational has ever occurred – except the daily awesomeness leveraged by our small, independent business owners, which has been considerable, if incessantly (and in my view, criminally) undervalued by occupants of the mayoral throne.
It’s not hard to read between the lines of Gahan’s characteristically bizarre Pillar Award comments, and couple them with the increasingly high profile of DNA in what previously were skull sessions on the part of independent business representatives with real skin in the game, to reach a conclusion.
It’s all about control, folks – controlling information, agendas and money.
If you own a small, independent business downtown, are you really on board with the idea of channeling energies through Develop New Albany as a subsidiary of City Hall, and as a “brand” extension of the current occupant? We have enough mud-buried anchors already.
There just might be another route, one that involves DNA doing what it should have been doing all along. Consequently, please … PLEASE … do me this one favor and consider the message embodied by National Main Street’s four-point refresh at the previous links.
The points therein still make sense, and the updated idea of community transformation strategies might well be inclusive and cooperative.
It may even be possible for this process of “refreshing” to result in substantive cooperation between stakeholders, but first, we must resolve not to continue allowing ourselves to be spoon-fed by entities and organizations UNLESS they’re able to communicate and express how the proposals they’re making jibe with their own foundational principles, whether DNA’s economic vitality imperative or the city’s commitment to public safety for all citizens, and entirely divorced from the political imperative of the millisecond.
If you rehabbed a space, set up a shop and started doing business downtown, then the ultimate power’s with you, but only when collectively exercised. The very least you can do is make them answer coherently, explain cogently, and look you in the eye.
They don’t want to do it, and that’s why you have to do it.
After all, isn't cooperation a two-way street?
August 4: ON THE AVENUES: Federal funding mechanisms total eighty percent. The other half is unalloyed political malice.
July 28: ON THE AVENUES: An imaginary exercise tentatively called The Curmudgeon Free House.
July 21: ON THE AVENUES: We have our own Big Four Bridge. They’re called Main, Market, Spring and Elm.
July 14: ON THE AVENUES: Weeds, porch appliances and our civic Gospel of Appearances.