Who’s in charge downtown?

A discount-store owner who has told the local print newspaper that he would “probably move” if Downtown Waynesboro were to ever get back on its feet is, for all intents and purposes, the point man on downtown redevelopment until that day comes.
“I think the compromise, as long as the two restaurants survive through it without any bad numbers, and as long as I don’t take too big a hit, I think it’ll work,” said Bill Mikolay, the owner of Main Street Discount, whose objections to the scheduled April 26 Waynesboro Omnium bike race had threatened its cancellation before the compromise that he referenced in an interview with News Virginian reporter Jimmy LaRoue on Thursday was reached.

That compromise had originally been broached – and voted down in a 3-2 party-line vote – at the Waynesboro City Council meeting Monday night. The revived compromise, which will need the formal approval of City Council next week, involves a modification to the original buffer zone proposed for the bike race course that is being created downtown that will allow vehicular traffic on Main Street to be able to access the 300 block of West Main Street up to Main Street Discount.

The first buffer zone had Main Street closed at the intersection with Arch Avenue. The race will take cyclists north on Wayne Avenue with a left turn at the intersection of Wayne and Main to head up the hill.

Vice Mayor Frank Lucente raised strenuous objection to that specific suggestion and more generally to the idea of the street closure needed to accommodate the race at Monday’s City Council meeting on Mikolay’s behalf.

“I don’t think it’s going to work to let them come up that street. They only have one way in, and they’d have to U-turn in the street to get back out. I don’t think the owner would be amicable to that, but we’d have to ask him,” Lucente said, referring to Mikolay, effectively giving Mikolay final say regarding the race, which is being organized by a Wintergreen-based cycling-team manager, Tony Bilotta.

Bilotta told City Council that he expects as many as 600 entrants all told into the race event, which will include amateur divisions for youths and adults and a professional race as the highlight of the day for observers.

He addressed the concern from Lucente on behalf of Mikolay that the event would have a negative impact on business downtown. “Some of them benefit greatly from people being there to watch the race. It’s probably more people than they might get on a normal Sunday. There will be hundreds of people there. There’s going to be families. They’re going to need to eat, they’re going to need to do everything,” Bilotta said.

Waynesboro City Councilwoman Nancy Dowdy sees a positive impact on the local economy across the board as well. “We all heard the news (last week) that tourism is down, our sales-tax revenues are down. That means the restaurant sales, the hotel revenues are down,” Dowdy said.

“I’m sure that the restaurants are going to benefit from this. I’ve never heard complaints from them,” Dowdy said. “I think in fairness to the businesses in Waynesboro that we don’t hear from, the Applebee’s, the Ruby Tuesday’s, the other businesses that we don’t typically hear from, we never hear the positives. I think we need to keep an open mind here, folks, about what tourism is all about and what it brings to the city as a whole,” Dowdy said.

And what Bilotta wants to bring is not just one racing event in 2009, but two. His plans include a second race event in downtown in August. Both races are on the schedule for Sunday afternoons, and that’s an important point because of past objections raised by Mikolay to another Downtown Waynesboro racing event, the annual Blue Ridge Classic Soap Box Derby. The derby is held on a Saturday, and Mikolay has raised the issue in the past of having derby officials move race day to a Sunday so as to reduce the impact on downtown business, in addition to raising the threat of legal action to block the closure of Main Street to allow for the race.

“I would like to tell you the Soap Box Derby event is not a matter of dollars and cents. But frankly it is,” Mikolay wrote in a letter to the editor of The News Virginian published March 1, 2008. “And being in business, especially in Downtown Waynesboro, dollars and cents make the difference between being in business or out of business,” Mikolay wrote.

“Show me I won’t lose a penny, and I would love the town to have an event downtown every day,” Mikolay wrote.

It’s worth noting here that Mikolay told The News Virginian recently that the bulk of his business comes not from in-person traffic to his store but from online sales. The paper’s editorial page reported this week that Mikolay told the paper that he sees 10,000 customers a day online compared to the 200 customers a day that he gets in his store.

“Main Street Discount does not need a downtown turnaround; in fact, if it ever happens, he’s not so sure he’d even maintain his operation there,” the NV editorial offered. “If the downtown blooms, Mikolay recently told The News Virginian, ‘I’ll probably move.'”

And yet Lucente, Mayor Tim Williams and City Councilman Bruce Allen have him making the call on events downtown in the interim.

“I’m all in favor of trying to get the race in here also, but I also think we need to do what we can to protect downtown merchants,” Allen said. “And I know that from talking with several of them, every time we come across with a new way of trying to close off downtown, they are losing a considerable amount of money, and I think it’s our obligation to protect the merchants.

“I’m not real comfortable doing this at the cost of some of our merchants downtown,” Allen said. “I know some of the stores are trying to stay open on Sunday, and trying to draw an afternoon crowd there. We’re kind of defeating the purpose when we close off Main Street.”

In fact, a survey of downtown businesses had only three planning to be open on the Sunday of the first planned event in April – Main Street Discount and two downtown restaurants, Chickpeas and Shukri’s. Three others, according to city tourism director Lianne Crookshanks, have since expressed interest in being open on Sunday, April 27, to take advantage of the expected influx of visitors downtown that day.

“I always hear that – that this is going to be good for downtown, and in my mind it seems like it would be a benefit,” Williams said. “But I hear from the merchants, especially when we close on Saturdays, when we have more businesses open, that it is a hindrance to their normal daily sales on the weekends.

“I’m very sensitive to the merchant and the employees,” Williams said next, referring specifically to Mikolay and Main Street Discount. “I don’t know how many people he employs, I would guess 10, at least a half dozen, and that’s their livelihood.”

Except, again, for the fact that the livelihood at Main Street Discount comes from online sales, by Mikolay’s own reckoning. Quick math has 98 percent of Main Street Discount’s customer base coming from the Internet. At most, then, doing some more quick math, Main Street Discount loses one customer in 50, and that’s if not a single person downtown for the bike race steps inside his doors.

“Let me understand what you want,” Dowdy began an exchange with Williams at Monday’s City Council meeting. “You want a guarantee that we’re going to satisfy one merchant in Waynesboro?”

“I’m concerned about – I mean, we’re always talking about …” Williams said.

“I just want a clarification. So the three of you want to make sure that we satisfy one individual in Waynesboro to hold an event,” Dowdy said.

“I’d like to satisfy all of them,” Williams said.

“That’s what I’m hearing,” Dowdy said.

“I’d like to satisfy all of them. These other businesses aren’t going to suffer, the ones that are outside this little downtown area,” Williams said.

“Is anybody going to go talk to these other businesses? Or are we only going to talk to this one person?” Dowdy said.

“If we still have the event, it’s not going to damage these other businesses. It’s not going to hurt their business,” Williams said.

“That wasn’t my question. My question was, is anybody going to talk to other merchants downtown? Or are only going to talk to one merchant?” Dowdy said.

“We should talk to all the merchants. I thought you were talking about the Applebee’s and …” Williams said.

“No. I was asking, are we only going to converse with this one merchant?” Dowdy said.

“Yeah. I think we should certainly take into consideration all the merchants downtown. But I’m not sure how many businesses are even open on Sunday downtown,” Williams said.

City Councilwoman Lorie Smith put a motion on the table to have the Council approve the closure of the streets conditionally upon the satisfaction of the requests of Mikolay that was voted down 3-2 – with Smith and Dowdy in favor and Williams, Lucente and Allen opposed.

“I’m concerned about the stand that we’re taking here, folks. We’re hearing that our sales-tax revenues are down $1.4 million, and we’re sitting up here saying we’re going to turn a two-day event away? Wait a minute, guys. I’m confused,” Dowdy said.

I will give the Williams-Lucente-Allen troika a sliver of credit for apparently realizing that they needed to engage in the spirit of compromise that they had been preaching and keeping the matter on the table for more discussion in a move that paved the way for the deal that has been tentatively worked out to keep the race on.

I say that because word has gotten back to me that in the aftermath of the City Council meeting this week Bilotta had been contacted about his interest in considering relocating his race to Downtown Staunton, and my guess is that he might have been inclined to move in that direction if only because his races are already on the cycling calendar for 2009, and a move to Staunton wouldn’t be that difficult to sell given the proximity.

As it stands now, Bilotta is “excited” that his race appears to have to go that it needs, he told The News Virginian, and he’s “ready to get on with it.”

With all due respect to Bill Mikolay, I’m hoping we’re ready to get on with a plan of action downtown that isn’t subject to veto by a discount-store owner who plans to move once we get things moving forward down here again.


Story by Chris Graham

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