citybeat (2006-03)

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City Council passes the World’s Fair Park proposal

Bruised Butts Aside…

The return of Market Square’s ice-skating rink was an unqualified success

Wednesday, Jan. 11

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If you need any background on the subject, check out last week’s cover story, which details the terms flying around at the meeting; TIF, blight, privatization, etc. Stronger terms tossed into the ring by incensed protestors of the sale were accusations of “insider deals” and “special interests.” In the end, though, Mayor Haslam frankly responded to those suggestions, saying the bid accepted was a million dollars more than any other offer.

Tensions did rise from time to time during the allotted hour for community debate, 30 minutes per side. With 3 pro speakers and 8 con speakers, however, the latter bunch, wearing “Save the Candy Factory” pins, dominated that hour.

The first speaker in favor of the proposal was Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, who briefly stated her organization’s unanimous support for the sale and renovation of the deteriorating historic structures. Downtown business owners Craig Meyers and Judy McCarthy also spoke in favor, McCarthy saying that her primary motivation for using the Candy Factory, as a member of the board of directors of James White Fort, had been more than satisfied by the city’s provisions, calling the O’Connor Center where it now meets “an improvement.” She also noted, “Those of us who work with non-profit groups should be saying thank you for letting us use this space while we were able, but we are a resourceful bunch and can take care of ourselves.” Meyers aired his worry that declining this sale “might stifle the momentum of downtown’s growth.”

On the other hand, members of Save the Candy Factory, a protest group that formed during the city’s deliberations on the issue, made a passionate last-ditch effort, many of them quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and other historic figures. Architect and Green Party member David Buckwalter referred to usage of the TIF and the properties’ blight designation, saying, “Approval [of the proposal] would be a perverse abuse of the laws that provide for it.” Both he and poet Donna Doyle mentioned that they planned to continue efforts after the vote, stating 50-percent voter turnout as their goal in the next city elections. Doyle also urged Council, “I would like for you to consider business ethics…. I would like for you to maintain a good business relationship with the citizens.” Fellow Save the Candy Factory member Martin Pleasant commented on the process by which the city came to this proposal, saying, “We haven’t reached a consensus as a community, and that’s going to have ramifications. The effect is the disempowerment of the citizens.”

Afterward, council members engaged in brief debate, most of them simply clarifying their stance. Councilman Joe Hultquist echoed Pleasant’s complaint, stating, “My concerns remain on the process in which we got to this point. I’m not confident we’ve done all we can to meet the needs of community space.” However, he said he could not dispute his colleagues’ consensus on the issue. Bob Becker boiled it down to dollars and cents, purporting that, as of now, the city’s asking the average citizen to shell out $2 a year in taxes to retain the Candy Factory and would have to ask $40 to renovate it. As an alternative, he suggests the city work with a quarter from each taxpayer to create a “true community space.” He also called for citizens’ help in that endeavor: “I challenge folks in the audience to stick with this fight.”

Some in the crowd gave a standing ovation when Councilman Steve Hall, who would give the sole nay vote, said, “Because we are a government, we’re not a business. If we got rid of everything in this city that didn’t make money, I don’t know what we’d have left.”

Councilman Chris Woodhull gave a heartfelt summation, “I still feel nervous up here. I think it’s because I wish there was a different way for us to engage. I wish there wasn’t a wooden wall between us, because we’re one.” In response to the several insinuations of a corrupt process, he said, “You’ve got honest people up here. We’re in this together.” Relating advice he doles to clients at Tribe One, his organization that works to keep troubled youngsters out of jail, he says, “I’m in favor of this proposal because if you’re in a hole, one of the best things you can do is quit digging.”

That seemed to be the consensus. In the end, the proposal passed 8-1.

Bruised Butts Aside…

2005 marked Ghodrat’s second holiday season as a Market Square business owner, and it wasn’t a bad year to be on board—the reintroduction of a 36-by-100-foot ice rink meant increased foot traffic and a dramatic spike in sales over previous winters. Though Market Square Kitchen currently operates as a breakfast/lunch counter, Ghodrat says he hopes to be open for dinner as well when the rink returns next year. “The ice-skating rink has been great for us. We’re very, very happy,” he says.

A few historic storefronts down, Vagabondia owner and Market Square District Association president Andie Ray agrees, proclaiming the rink “an incredible success all around.” Her dress store observed substantially higher sales, although perhaps via a different phenomenon than experienced by Market Square Kitchen. “I tried to gauge who was coming in, and who was spending money, and it didn’t seem to be the crowds coming in from the rink,” she explains. “I think maybe the deciding factor was the constant media attention that caused some of our regular customers to think of us for Christmas shopping. It was my regular customers that put us over the top.”

Ray notes that the rink’s success transcended financial profit; the so-called Holidays on Ice event also fostered a sense of community. From her apartment above the shop, she enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the wintertime anomaly—a square buzzing with bundled-up visitors, day in and day out. She says she hopes funds can be raised to extend next year’s ice-skating season through Valentine’s Day. This year, the rink was open Nov. 25 through Jan. 1. “I’m hoping success will breed success, and that those who did stick their necks out and sponsor the rink this year will see what it did for the square and help again next year,” she says.

Funding for the 2005 rink, to the tune of well over $100,000, came from a combination of the city and individual and business donors. And according to Market Square District Association vice-president Scott Schimmel, who co-launched Holidays on Ice with production-company owner Larsen Jay, the venture came close to breaking even—thanks to an impressive show of community support. In just over a month, 20,000 people strapped on skates and tried their luck on the ice. But regardless of whether the skaters managed to stay upright, the real accomplishment was drawing visitors to the square in the first place.

“One of the most exciting things for me was that so many of them were coming downtown for the first time,” Schimmel says. “It was fun to be out there, a fly on the wall, listening to people’s comments. 99.9 percent of the people were just thrilled.”

A return of the rink in 2006 is likely, says Schimmel. He anticipates a longer run and lower operating costs, since they won’t have to reinvest in several upfront investments like the concession shack and entryway shed (the remainder of the equipment was rented from a Texas-based company). They’re also getting an earlier start on fundraising this year, a process that didn’t take shape until June in 2005.

“We appreciate everybody who supported this, both the skaters and the sponsors. Hopefully, everyone enjoyed it,” says Schimmel.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Jan. 11

Thursday, Jan. 12

Friday, Jan. 13

Saturday, Jan. 14

Sunday, Jan. 15

Monday, Jan. 16

Tuesday, Jan. 17

© 2006 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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