Business owners and citizens packed into Bridgeport city council chambers Thursday in support of the city’s Main Street and Chamber of Commerce.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Mayor Keith McComis assured the crowd that he had no wish to cut either program. Then fury shifted to frustration with the operation of the Main Street program – the very issue McComis wanted to address.
He said his aim was to resurrect a program that seems “to have stalled and is a little bit stale” and regroup so there is better communication among its stakeholders.
“We need to all come together, and we want to help with that,” McComis said. “All we’re trying to do is get more participation” and connect downtown merchants with the resources available through Main Street Manager Amber Fogelman.
“Amber does her best to be of assistance to us, but she is torn between her responsibilities,” said Pat Slayton, excecutive of Wise Hope Women’s Shelter. The shelter runs a consignment shop on Halsell Street, Bridgeport’s main drag.
“I would like to propose that the city of Bridgeport request a waiver from the Texas Historical Commission that would allow us to hire a part-time, dedicated person to the Main Street district, who would be officed there,” Slayton said. “I believe this would encourage more participation from the merchants and the business owners and the property owners because they would see the Main Street manager face-to-face, like we see our customers, instead of via email.”
The request came as a surprise to McComis.
“Wanting to get a new director – that kind of threw me off guard because … I looked at the people that have been showing up to Main Street meetings,” he said. “Last week there were more people there than there had been at any of the meetings the last three years combined. So I understand what you’re saying that it’s gotten flat. And that’s why we’re here. We need to either help Amber and Amber needs to help y’all, or we need to do something different … She doesn’t have time to referee.
“You’re either going to participate, or you’re not,” he continued. “And if you want to participate, she’ll be there with arms open willing to work on anything you want to work on. But it won’t work with only one or two people.”
Slayton countered, arguing that merchants meetings aren’t conveniently scheduled.
“We work around Amber’s schedule,” Slayton said. “We don’t have it at night. We work when she doesn’t have some other meeting that she has to go to.”
She said she didn’t feel like her contributions were valued.
“There are a lot of people that have been involved, and I know that I myself resigned from the design committee because I felt like no one was listening to my input and I was wasting my time taking time off from my paid job at 1 p.m. for two hours whenever need be, generally on short notice, to make a recommendation on something so that we could hurry up and get it to city council, and the city council might or might not accept the recommendation of the design committee,” she continued. “I think that’s why a lot of us have been frustrated, not with the Main Street program, but with the support.
“Can we do more? Yes, but only if given the chance and the support.”
Fogelman said an evening meeting has never been requested. McComis added that as a city employee, her work hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“And like anybody else, she has a life to live,” he said. “I’m sure if she had more participation at night, she’d be glad to do that … There’s no communication. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Another point of contention was facade grant money, which is administered by the Main Street program. Last month, McComis asked that no more applications for the grant be accepted because the city is “out the money budgeted.”
“That came as a real surprise,” Slayton said. “I wish I would’ve been told that before I went to the trouble of filling out the grant application, turning it in and not even having the design committee know we’re out the money.”
“Believe me, I would’ve like to have known, too,” McComis retorted. “That’s partly our fault for not checking into that. We didn’t know it until it was already done. We budgeted $85,000 for this year, and it’s well overspent.”
Partly to blame, he said, is a loose disbursement policy.
“We need some definitions on what we’re giving money for,” he said. “What is a facade?, etc.”
Newly-elected councilman Kevin Lopez reminded the crowd that there are only five months left in the fiscal year.
“Unless it’s a safety issue, we’re just out of the budget right now,” he said. “It can wait for five months.”
McComis said he asked Chamber funding be placed on the agenda not to deliberate cutting the city’s contribution, but to devise an alternative funding mechanism.
Under an agreement crafted in 2006, the city agreed to give 25 percent of hotel occupancy tax revenue generated in that fiscal year in exchange for the Chamber running the visitors center.
The last few years, those amounts have been $15,171.90 (the first half of fiscal year 2012-2013); $23,114.66 (FY 2011-2012); $23,937.90 (FY 2010-2011); and $24,333.65 (FY 2009-2010).
“A lot of years, that’s going to run it,” McComis said. “But what about the years it’s not enough?”
The visitor center annual expenses are as follows:
- Staffing – $12,000
- Supplies – $518
- Postage – $290
- Rent – $2,800
- Internet/phones – $314
- Website – $500
- Dues/memberships – $500
- Advertising – $2,500
- Merchandise to sell – $1,000
This totals $21,000.
“The difference doesn’t leave a lot of room for error,” McComis said. “Plus it’s hard to sit down and figure out how you’re going to spend your money if you don’t know what you’re getting.”
McComis proposed that instead of the unknown percentage, come budget-writing time this summer, the city look at setting a fixed amount to allocate to the Chamber, just as it does with the Stage, Main Street and sponsorships of various events put on by civic organizations.
“It would clean up the process so everyone is receiving a fixed amount, and we have a guarantee that we won’t go over our budget,” City Administrator Brandon Emmons said.
After the explanation, a few in attendance expressed support of the program.
“The Chamber has been a great asset to the downtown area,” said Carolyn Moore, owner of Terra Cotta Boutique. “The best thing that ever happened was that Chamber office moving there. It brings people to our part of town. I have people come from all over the country, and they stop at the Chamber first. It’s an important asset.”
The mayor agreed, reiterating his intention.
“I, too, think the Chamber does a great job,” he said. “It’s an asset to any town. In no way am I suggesting we not fund that program.
“We get all wild on Facebook and on the telephone,” he continued. “Folks, I’m a phone call away, and I’ll explain it to you. My phone number is available at city hall, on my business cards – it’s everywhere. I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have.”