DBAC meltdown: Downtown business org in disarray; chair resigns

Joan Fenton ousted George Benford as chair of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville.
Photo Eze Amos Joan Fenton ousted George Benford as chair of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. Photo Eze Amos

Simmering undercurrents from the parking war between the city and Charlottesville Parking Center over the Water Street Garage have splintered the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, whose chairman abruptly resigned August 8 after being told he was illegally elected. The move leaves some members confused about who’s in charge and one who is working to start a new downtown business alliance.

George Benford was elected DBAC chairman in March after former chair Bob Stroh retired from both the business association and CPC, where, as general manager, he’d helped found the DBAC.

Benford says he was in New York on business August 8 when he got an e-mail from DBAC vice-chair Joan Fenton, who owns Quilts Unlimited & J. Fenton Gifts. According to Benford, Fenton said his election was illegal because the bylaws had never been officially approved to allow an election in March, and that she would take over in the interim.

“I said I’d just make this simple and resign,” says Benford. “There’s been a lot of dissent from one or two people. This is a volunteer job. Nobody gets paid.” He adds, “I don’t have energy for this.”

In his resignation letter, Benford listed his accomplishments during the five months he was chair, including DBAC membership being at an all-time high. What he didn’t mention was the parking dispute between CPC owner Mark Brown and the city that has roiled the organization and had it sending conflicting messages to City Council.

Benford came under fire from Fenton and others for an April 17 letter to City Council that said the DBAC would not take sides in the dispute between Brown and the city. It urged a quick resolution and for the city to come up with a long-term plan to deal with parking.

At a May 25 DBAC meeting, Violet Crown Cinema’s Robert Crane called for a petition to City Council that it not sell the Water Street Parking Garage to Brown. Violet Crown, which had hired DBAC member Susan Payne’s public relations firm to represent it, held a June 2 meeting on parking and attendees unanimously agreed that the garage should be a public utility. Days later, council passed a resolution to make an offer to buy Brown’s shares of the garage.

That was followed by a June 23 letter from downtown association board member Mary Beth Schellhammer on DBAC letterhead asking both the city and CPC to knock off the heated rhetoric—the city threatened eminent domain and CPC to close the garage—and come to a quick resolution.

Fenton contends that Benford went to the city and said the DBAC was in favor of it selling its shares of the garage to Brown. She also accused him of not being transparent, and of stalling a DBAC vote on a resolution to keep the garage a public utility.

“From my perspective, [Benford] has done so much damage to the organization and now he’s continuing to damage it,” says Fenton.

“He has a large group of people beholden to Mark Brown,” she says. “There’s a perception CPC is running DBAC.”

Certainly the two organizations have always been intertwined, with downtown booster Stroh holding leadership positions in both. CPC has provided office space and support to DBAC, says Benford, and CPC employee Sarah Mallan is DBAC’s secretary and treasurer.

“DBAC records are kept at the parking garage,” says Fenton. “I think that’s a conflict.”

Brown says that two people out of 17 on the DBAC board work for him. “Didn’t the DBAC encourage the city to fight me and not settle with me?” he asks.

Fenton also questions board members who don’t own businesses downtown, such as Benford, who used to own the restaurant Siips on the mall, and Amy Wicks-Horn, who joined DBAC when she was director of the Virginia Discovery Museum.

Benford says he offered to resign when he sold the restaurant. “Everyone, including Joan, asked me to stay on,” he says.

And Fenton questions the link between Wicks-Horn, who currently works for the Piedmont Family YMCA, which received funding for the new Y from the Jessup family, a member of which also sold Brown his shares in the Water Street Garage Condominium Association.

“I categorically deny that,” says Wicks-Horn. She says she’s not representing the Y with her DBAC membership, and she volunteers because of her passion to support downtown.

“DBAC is a strong partner with CPC and it’s also a strong partner with the city,” she says, and both entities are concerned about the issue of parking downtown. “That doesn’t mean we’re in the city’s pocket and it doesn’t mean we’re in CPC’s pocket.”

Spring Street owner Cynthia Schroeder sees the need for a new business group, an idea she’s had plans for since 2012. “I’m starting a new, honest, open organization to increase business on the Downtown Mall,” she says. “It’s fresh, it’s going to be very active.”

Schroeder doesn’t believe Benford should be chair of DBAC. “It’s unraveling,” she says. “I’m going to put my energy into my effort,” which she says she’d like to have in place by January.

After submitting a resignation not only as chair, but as a member of the DBAC executive committee, board and association itself, Benford reconsidered August 10. “I have received numerous requests to rescind my resignation letter,” he says, and he will remain on a member of the DBAC and its board of directors.

The legality of Benford’s chairmanship was raised at a bylaws committee meeting August 5, says Fenton. Some have questioned whether her interpretation of the bylaws, which the board had talked about updating but she believes never did, is correct.

“I can’t swear to one or the other,” she says. “But if he resigned, it doesn’t matter. He’s got copies of the bylaws, and he could have said, ‘I think you’re reading this wrong.’”

Fenton says she’s been asked to hold an emergency meeting, but with a regular DBAC meeting scheduled for August 17 and the annual meeting in September, she wants the entire membership to vote on who leads the group. “We can start with a clean slate,” she says.

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