Dire straits: Business association wants $250,000 for mall recovery

DBAC chair Joan Fenton says the Downtown Mall has suffered after this summer, and the city needs to pitch in for what’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions. 
SKYCLADAERIAL.COM DBAC chair Joan Fenton says the Downtown Mall has suffered after this summer, and the city needs to pitch in for what’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions. SKYCLADAERIAL.COM

The Downtown Mall is not faring well, at least according to the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, which wants the city to pump up the maintenance and provide DBAC with $250,000 for advertising, staff, rent and holiday lighting.

Business in the entire city of Charlottesville dropped $14 million—nearly 12 percent—in September, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce reports. And while August 12 is cited as a reason people aren’t coming downtown, so is parking, shoddy maintenance and safety concerns.

DBAC chair Joan Fenton points to the bricks on the mall that are sticking up and hazardous, despite the city’s $7.5 million rebricking project in 2009. “It’s an easy maintenance,” she says. “You need someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Loose brick on the mall, photographed in late August. Staff photo

Lighting is another big concern and the “biggest complaint from employees walking at night,” she says.

Fenton wrote a letter to City Manager Maurice Jones and City Council January 2 asking for increased mall funding in the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2019. She says the city’s budget has grown 17 percent over the past four years while the mall’s maintenance has declined 20 percent.

And Fenton is being vigilant about the budget after a walk on the mall last spring with city department heads. “I pointed out that the plants look awful,” she says. “[Assistant City Manager] Mike Murphy said I should have paid attention to the budget.”

The DBAC letter has a laundry list of wants: Seven-day-a-week policing, particularly at 2am when bars close, cameras, trash cans and public restrooms. The business association wants the city to hire a person to oversee mall decisions and an extra staffer to maintain and clean the mall as well as West Main to the Corner and side streets.

And it wants the city to provide $100,000 for DBAC to hire its own staffer and to pay rent for an office, along with $100,000 for advertising and $50,000 for lighting and decorations as part of the mall recovery program.

Charlottesville Parking Center used to provide a part-time employee and office space for DBAC—before the parking wars of 2016 distanced the center from DBAC, and CPC owner Mark Brown sued the city and threatened to close Water Street Parking Garage, which he owns with the city.

Spring Street Boutique owner Cynthia Schroeder, a DBAC member who also started the Downtown Business Alliance, says more mall maintenance is warranted, particularly with the city’s $9 million surplus, but she is skeptical about the DBAC request. “I would think a quarter million dollars with $100,000 for salaries is a bit high,” she says.

She supports a marketing plan to bring locals back downtown, and not just for one-time, alcohol-themed events like this fall’s Heal C-ville Beer Garden.

“Locals have a bad perception of the mall,” she says—that it’s “dangerous, dirty and filled with homeless people asking for money.”

Chamber of Commerce head Timothy Hulbert suggests there’s another big reason city revenues are down from a year ago. “Last September, last October, there was no 5th Street Station,” he says. And while the Unite the Right rally could be a factor, so could the weather or the timing of football games. “A month or a quarter doesn’t make a trend.”

North downtown resident Pat Napoleon, who is petitioning to remove three city councilors remaining from last year, says areas near the mall like Emancipation Park are filthy. “I don’t think it’s an inviting place.”

With erosion at the park, people sleeping there and a proliferation of cigarette butts tossed on the ground, she says, “A lot of people feel uncomfortable. It’s not a clean-looking place.”

Napoleon doesn’t think the city needs to give money to DBAC for staffing. “When I hear about a surplus, I think the city needs to use it more wisely. I think downtown business people need to put screws to the city.”

Former city spokesperson Miriam Dickler says of DBAC’s request, “There has been no decision on this. The budget is in process. Like all requests, this will be considered.”

Vice-Mayor Heather Hill says the request has to be evaluated against other priorities, but safety—of surfaces and lighting and cameras—are infrastructure expenditures “I’d certainly consider.”

Fenton wants the Downtown Mall to be in its own business improvement district, and says that appeared possible until commercial property assessments skyrocketed last year. “Once taxes increased, there was no way you could ask people to pay extra,” she says.

Because the mall is an income generator, she says the city should be investing in it. “People don’t drive from Northern Virginia to go to Barracks Road,” she says. “When UVA has new faculty prospects, they bring them to the Downtown Mall.”

Word on the mall is that some businesses are struggling. “If there isn’t a strong effort, I think we’re going to see a lot of businesses close,” says Schroeder. “The Downtown Mall clearly needs the support.”

Spring Street had busy days this fall, she says, but she will continue to re-evaluate her business. “When you put your heart and soul into something and traffic is down because of where you are…” She leaves the alternatives unspoken.

DBAC Letter to Council on the Budget (7)

Correction January 30: The $14 million/12 percent decline in retail sales for Charlottesville was in September, not for the first three quarters of 2017 as originally reported.

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