Saturday, December 8, 2007
Aid plan for biz a letdown
City allotted $400K to help merchants along rail construction route
© 2007, Quicksilver Publishing Group. All rights reserved. May not be disseminated or reproduced without express written permission.
by David Tell, Messenger Editor
Despite the advent of a $400,000 city program to help advertise and promote struggling merchants along Midtown’s light rail construction route, business owners and their advocates remain decidedly unhappy.
That sentiment bubbled over at a Nov. 8 meeting among the parties, also attended by some interested representatives of local media.
Ferment about the dire impact of light rail construction on Midtown businesses has been growing since articles appeared last spring about the light rail’s construction bonus program, under which contractors are paid extra monies for responding to complaints about business access, signage, and even items such as broken water mains affecting commercial properties.
Dan Abrams of Abrams Realty, among others, objected to the bonus program as illegitimately and wastefully paying contractors for work—remedying the negative impacts of the construction activity—that they are already being paid for under their contracts with Valley Metro, the light rail agency.
While the Arizona Republic broke that story, it was subsequent reporting on the controversy in the June issue of The Midtown Messenger that seemed to light a fire under city officials, according to Abrams, who praised the article. He and Charles Jones of the Pierson Place neighborhood group met with Mayor Phil Gordon and District 4 Councilman Tom Simplot after the Messenger article appeared, and the result was the establishment of a program specifically using city funds to aid the merchant community. That program, to have kicked off around Labor Day, was announced in a letter to the editor authored by Jones appearing in the September Midtown Messenger.
In addition, according to a Metro release published in the July issue, the agency was allocating an additional $150,000 toward addressing access issues, and the city was dedicating two staff members as light rail traffic managers to look for access problems and other issues, and fix them.
For its June article on the need for public spending to support struggling merchants rather than to gratuitously reward contractors, The Midtown Messenger spoke to several business owners whose accounts of flagging customer traffic and grave dips in revenue due to the light rail construction portrayed the severity of the need.
In its touted plan to do promotional spending—the nearly half-million-dollar advertising program—the city’s effort has been a resounding disappointment, according to Abrams.
At the Nov. 8 meeting, “We had a very good discussion. A lot of the merchants who were there got up and spoke, and expressed their dissatisfaction and disgust with what the city’s been doing with advertising,” Abrams said. “Primarily they’ve done radio, half on a Latino station, which is virtually of no value.”
[Editor’s note: A clarification concerning the foregoing quote will appear in the Dec. 17 issue of the paper.]
The other main avenue of promotion the city has been pursuing involves a website called shoptheline.net, with the idea that multiple merchants would come up with special offers promoting their businesses on the site, and the city would spend advertising dollars to get people to visit the site to find those specials.
The Midtown Messenger’s experience with this proposed advertising program may be illustrative of that of other local, community-oriented print media. In mid-September, the paper began contacting the city to find out with whom to share its advertising and rate information. The paper received no responses to messages left for Maria Hyatt, the official in the City Manager’s Office with responsibility for light rail issues. It finally learned her subordinate Albert Santana was coordinating the advertising program for the merchants affected by the light rail, and he was then provided with the newspaper’s information.
Calls to Simplot’s office in September also brought dissatisfying results. A Simplot aide finally reached said she didn’t think the program was intended to include print advertising, and that the paper should approach Valley Metro directly for such advertising. Metro has in fact advertised in this paper in the past, but curtailed their latest contract short of the agreed number of ads due to a budget shortfall, its media buying agency said.
Santana left a message with the newspaper in response to a call reminding him of November’s ad deadlines, after nothing materialized in September or October. His message explained that timing of advertising under the program was tricky, in that it would be ineffective if launched before there is enough participation in the shop-the-line website.
As an example of other print outlets’ interest not only in the general issue but in getting advertising under the program, Abrams noted that Teri Carnicelli of North Central News and Phoenix Downtown’s Forrest Martin were both at the Nov. 8 meeting.
“[The city’s] been doing radio remotes, postcards, the Internet site—the website has been virtually worthless,” Abrams said. “We asked that they spend money advertising in community newspapers—The Midtown Messenger, North Central News, a paper in Moon Valley, Phoenix Downtown. We don’t want to see money in the Republic, it’s too expensive. We felt for the cost of those [more locally targeted] ads, if they did a $100 coupon—get $100 off on merchandise—it would be very effective, especially now coming up before Christmas.”
Abrams said city staff were told “‘It’s do or die, hit it hard with your advertising right now or you’ll miss out and waste your money.’ Albert didn’t seem to understand, just seemed to want to go off explaining his own ideas,” he said.
The Midtown Messenger’s reminder message to Santana a couple weeks before the November ad deadline pointed out it would be the city’s last effective opportunity to help the merchants with any advertising at the height of the holiday shopping season. The paper normally prints the third Monday of the month, and its next issue after November’s prints Dec. 17.
Too, “We contacted him a week and a half before the [Nov. 8] meeting, asked for a complete timeline of their plans, asked for a budget, what they were spending on what,” Abrams said, noting that he received no information in response. “Going back to August, we were asking, ‘Where were they going to advertise, what publications?’ and they just kept stalling us.”
Simplot called back during the writing of this article, in response to a message left on his Council cell phone on the Veteran’s Day holiday. In addition to his Council role, he’s also chairman of the board of Metro light rail, and the line segment construction affecting Midtown merchants lies largely in his district.
Simplot said he is aware of the problems. “We’re going to be shifting our advertising dollars. There was a specific request that we advertise in The Midtown Messenger, Phoenix Downtown, North Central News,” he acknowledged. “City staff and Metro staff have been very willing to be fluid in how they respond to the needs of the merchants.”
In response to concerns that staff have been pursuing ideas for the program to the exclusion of requests in the community, and that the new intent to try different avenues comes somewhat late to aid the merchants at a key season, Simplot qualified his assurances: “They’re flexible, for government. When you’re changing a big ship like the city of Phoenix and Metro, it’s going to be frustrating. Considering where we are, compared to where we were last spring, it’s promising. There’s going to be a lot of change,” he said. “I know that Dan is frustrated with Albert, but he also has to work within this bureaucracy. It rarely happens that one person can be the entity that drives something or that kills it. He has the responsibility for turning the ship.
“[Santana] understands the policy change, which comes from my office, and me, in fact,” Simplot added. “I share the frustration.”
He went on to cite an area where the program has made progress: “The restaurants who have not been at the BOMARC [Business Owners & Merchants Along the Rail Coalition] meetings in great numbers have come together with their own plans. Dan and Charley don’t know about that,” Simplot said. “We are working on a home and office delivery system that we should be getting going in the next seven to 10 days.”
Apprised of the planned delivery program, Abrams was not very impressed. He noted that there has been in place a “Two-for Tuesdays” promotion to boost restaurant patronage at least that one day a week. Jones, who has generously sent out mass e-mails on behalf of that and other transit-related issues and programs for months, cited other attention to restaurateurs along Central Avenue paid by the city and the press recently. “If you’re a restaurant or have some connections in that area, you may get some help,” he said. “If you’re a shoe store, you’re out of luck.”
A few hours after the conversation with Simplot, Santana called to inquire whether it would still be possible to get an ad—one simply urging people to patronize business along the construction route during the holidays—into the the Messenger’s November issue. With layout still in flux, the paper was happy to oblige, not only for the revenue, but in its desire to help the struggling parts of the business community in whatever way possible. That ad appears on page 3.
In the meantime, a member of another business advocacy group with concerns about the light rail’s impacts and processes e-mailed The Midtown Messenger in early September in response to inquiries based on news tips. The correspondent wrote that he thought Metro staffers, during community advisory board (CAB) meetings, were acting excessively as “advocates or lobbyists” for contractors under the construction bonus program. The source said he considered that alleged advocacy “unethical and a dereliction of their duties while having a fiduciary responsibility to the city of Phoenix/Valley Metro rail on behalf of the taxpayers footing the bill for the bonuses, which were intended to be awarded ‘only’ for performing duties above and beyond the specified contract provisions.”
The correspondent said that advocacy included “allowing actual voting tallies [on potential bonuses] to be overruled by floor motions to increase the scores because they did not think some Community Advisory Board members were being fair in their assessments of the contractors’ performance.”
This paper has been working for weeks to get details on the allegations and related concerns for this article, which has been planned for publication whether or not it ever won any light-rail-related advertising.
Howard Steere, Metro’s public Involvement manager, said Metro staff do not interfere in the process of deciding the construction bonuses. He said the process can be complex and somewhat confusing, as it was for a new member at a morning CAB meeting on Nov. 13, but that it is transparent and driven by the members—volunteer community representatives.
He said there have been cases of revotes on a particular score or bonus question, but that those have not been prompted by Metro staff.
The Midtown Messenger’s informant also said an effort to end the program was partly motivated by some CAB members’ votes allegedly being influenced by improper, undisclosed financial considerations. The Midtown Messenger spoke to this correspondent and an associate several times over a period of weeks seeking further details about the allegations, but as of press time for this issue, the individuals indicated they preferred not to disclose additional information, and would instead be waiting to see how the program continued to play out.
Absent details or corroborating evidence, The Midtown Messenger asked Metro’s Communications Manager Marty McNeil if she had heard any such charges. She said she had not, and agreed that one would think anyone sincerely interested in the ethical operations of the CABs and the appropriate expenditure of public money under the bonus program would want to make officials aware of any misfeasance. “I don‘t think there’s any doubt that that is what everyone wants. If someone has some information or documentation, we hope they will provide it to us,” McNeil said.
“That’s a pretty significant thing. The integrity of the CAB process is extremely important to us, if someone has evidence or documentation related to that, they should bring it to our attention.”
Abrams noted that votes to end the bonus program had repeatedly failed at least through the August timeframe.