BRISTOL, Tenn. — A project by the city of Bristol, Tennessee, meant to encourage outdoor dining downtown has some business owners on Sixth Street relocating or on the verge of doing so because they say it created problems with parking, dangerous driving and flooding.
But they said one thing the new outdoor dining strip the city installed hasn’t drawn is outdoor dining.
In July, city staff widened a section of sidewalk on Sixth Street between Shelby and State streets so it could be used for outdoor dining and cafe seating. But business owners, some who appeared before City Council at its Tuesday night meeting, said since the project’s completion there have been nothing but problems.
To create space for the dining strip, the city eliminated nine of 15 parking spaces on Sixth Street and though there is a parking lot on the eastern side of the street, it is privately owned, and towing is enforced.
Lewis Foreman, who owns Foreman and Associates in the Central Building on Sixth Street, said people still park where spaces used to be, blocking the entire street and others have started to park on the sidewalk.
Dave Vaught, who has owned Top Hat Magic Supply on Sixth Street for 15 years, said he was already considering moving before the dining strip was built, but the conditions created by the change convinced him to relocate.
Valentina Rose, who owns Valentina’s Designs & Alterations, said since construction began on the dining strip, she’s lost business, and she’s tired of explaining to her frustrated customers why there are no places to park. If the city doesn’t fix the problem by replacing the spaces that were eliminated, she said she will close.
Lisa Sherfey is director of the Center of Hope and a clinical social worker at Alternatives Psychotherapy, which are both in the Central Building. She said she works with children and seniors who have experienced trauma, and the lost spaces have impacted her clients. She said some of her older clients with mobility issues can’t walk two or more blocks when the six remaining parking spaces on the street are taken, and they are canceling appointments. If that continues, she said she may have to move both operations.
Even Keith Yonker, owner of The Angry Italian, who initially supported the idea of the dining strip, said since it was finished business has dropped by 5%. He added he has been threatened verbally by people who blame him for the strip and the parking spaces the city got rid of. If the threats continue, he said he will move his restaurant — which is the only one on the dining strip — elsewhere.
But parking isn’t the only problem. Brian Bridgeforth, who owns Bridgeforth Design Studio, said the street now floods during heavy rain.
Many business and property owners on the street are most frustrated because they said the city did not make a good-faith effort to involve them in the decision-making process for the dining strip or inform them it was happening.
David Shumaker owns a building on Sixth Street with apartments that he rents out. Although he served on Bristol Tennessee City Council for 15 years, he said even he didn’t hear anything about the city’s plans until after the project was underway.
The idea for the dining strip came from a downtown development study the city commissioned. Tom Anderson, director of economic development, said those with the Walker Collaborative, who conducted the study, held focus groups and spoke to business and property owners on the street about the idea of a dining strip. He said he didn’t have a list of everyone they spoke to, but no red flags were raised at that time.
City Manager Bill Sorah said the planning process was very open and the city provided opportunities for anyone who was interested or concerned to speak.
“Sometimes, you just don’t know how else to get the info out there,” Sorah said. “Everyone had an opportunity to participate if they so chose.”
A presentation was held on the downtown development study in December, and a public breakfast meeting in January included discussion of the Sixth Street project and other suggestions in the study, Sorah said.
Funding for the dining strip was discussed at council’s eight-hour budget work session on Jan. 22 and at its June 4 meeting. City Council approved the allocation of $20,000 for the project when it adopted the 2019-20 budget. Council also heard a presentation on the project from city staff during its June work session, shortly before the work began.
The city manager added that news releases from the city and Believe in Bristol, a nonprofit that focuses on downtown businesses, were sent out shortly before work began.
But Maggie Bishop, director of Believe in Bristol, said the process could have been handled better because emails were sent out around July 4, and people may have missed them because of the holiday weekend.
However, many business owners said the city never made them aware of the meetings when the strip was discussed. They didn’t receive emails, fliers, notices or any other communication from the city until it was preparing to build, they added. Bridgeforth said the least the city could have done was send an employee out to talk to the business owners.
Yonker, who was part of the focus groups the Walker Collaborative used to come up with the idea of outdoor dining on Sixth Street, said though he knew about the dining strip, he was out of the loop on how quickly the city planned to roll it out. He said he was under the impression the city was going to wait until 2020 for construction.
Some business owners have even asked if the lack of communication from the city was intentional.
Dr. Donald Quinn, who owns the Quinn Organization in the Central Building, said it seems the meetings were conducted without the knowledge of pre-existing businesses, and he hopes it wasn’t an attempt by the city to control which businesses succeed on Sixth Street.
“Why would the city do that?” Sorah said, adding that the strip was meant to encourage outdoor dining. “It’s an opportunity for food and beverage businesses in the downtown.”