BRISTOL, Tenn. — Emails between Bristol, Tennessee, officials about the Sixth Street dining strip project — which eliminated parking in downtown Bristol and drew complaints from a number of business owners — reveal that city leaders realize they should have done a better job communicating with those affected.
In July, the city expanded a strip of sidewalk on Sixth Street between Shelby Street and State Street to encourage outdoor dining, which eliminated nine parking spaces. The loss of parking and other issues caused by the strip led business owners to speak out against it at the Aug. 6 City Council meeting.
Many of the business and property owners on Sixth Street said they received no direct communication from the city related to the project until it was already underway. Keith Yonker, owner of the Angry Italian, said he was aware of the city’s intentions to put in a dining strip, but he didn’t know the timeline of the project or what it would look like.
Emails related to the project between late June and late August were obtained by the Bristol Herald Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In a July 25 email between Vice Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and City Manager Bill Sorah, Luttrell said Lewis Foreman, owner of Foreman and Associates in the Central Building, told him that business owners along the street had not been notified of the project.
In a July 26 email between Mayor Margaret Feierabend and Sorah, she said she wanted to know that the city was doing its part to get information out about projects, and she wanted to be prepared to answer questions from the public.
In Sorah’s response to both emails, he said he talked to the owners of Elder Brew and the Angry Italian, and they were “ecstatic” about the project; that the city sent news releases to property and business owners on Sixth Street through Believe In Bristol after the project was approved; and he cited a number of articles about the project that were published by the Herald Courier.
“Sadly there will always be individuals that do not agree with a public improvement project. They frequently cite communication as the basis for their objection. Hopefully, upon completion of the plantings/safety barriers and the decorative lighting, the vision and potential of this project will be easily recognized and appreciated,” Sorah wrote to Feierabend.
However, on Aug. 9, following an outcry by Sixth Street business owners at the Aug. 6 City Council meeting, Sorah said in an email to the city’s communications department that based on the city’s experience on Sixth Street, a strategy needed to be developed to communicate with those who do not follow news media or the city on social media.
In response, Terrie Talbert, the outgoing director of the city’s office of community relations, said to Sorah: “Your communications team should have been more involved from the beginning of the process. Sharing greater detail and being involved in planning meetings early would have allowed us to suggest or develop a strategy of communication.”
She also said that Believe in Bristol is not an official representative of the city and the city’s communication team has more resources to communicate effectively.
Talbert said it’s important for the city to communicate with those likely to be affected by its projects ahead of time and provide updates so expectations are realistic on both sides.
Sorah said the city is always trying to evaluate and improve the way it communicates with the public. One example he gave is that Talbert and Anne Dunham, digital media and communications manager for the city, recently talked to Sixth Street business owners about the dining strip project, which is approaching completion.
Robert Pilk, owner of Mountain Empire Comics, said he appreciates the city talking to those affected, but it should have been done from the start. Business owners like him who put in a minimum of 60-70 hours per week running their businesses don’t have time to attend every council meeting or monitor social media for everything the city is doing, he added.
On Tuesday night, City Council approved leasing private parking on Sixth Street lots from Jones Specialty Marketing so they can be used for public parking. The lease will cost $15,000 per year, last five years and is expected to add 13-15 public parking spaces. Sorah said while the issues on Sixth Street were a contributing factor to the city making this move, he added that the city has been considering it for a long time.
Pilk said he appreciates the move, but he wishes the city had told him and others directly about the plan.
Valentina Rose, who owns Valentina’s Designs & Alterations, said the new parking is good, but she still opposes the dining strip. She believes it will be a failure, and city officials would have known that if they had asked business owners for their input, she added.
Foreman, the business owner, said the additional parking clears up most of the issues created by the strip.