2 groups at odds over efforts to bolster downtown Franklin

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Promoting the town of Franklin has become a competitive initiative, with the organizers of one program feeling pushed out by the other. But as some say recent disagreements reveal deteriorating relationships among the Macon County town’s advocates, organizers say work is underway to bring harmony to the two groups.

But the months-long debate has sparked outcries over everything from who can erect banners to whether to advertise in a local newspaper, not to mention the more lofty discussion of who is better at communicating with and promoting local business in the town of about 3,800 residents.

Last month, Matt Bateman, of Venture Local Franklin, which was founded in 2011 by a group of young entrepreneurs with businesses in Franklin, spoke during a Franklin Board of Alderman meeting about problems his group faced during a recent StreetFest block party.

Bateman said he got involved with the start-up of Venture Local Franklin more than a year ago. Organizers of the effort seek to help promote Franklin and its merchants, and they began by hosting monthly “hang-outs” to share new ideas, organizing “cash mobs” and a series of four StreetFest block parties downtown, as well as providing booths at other local festivals.

During the first three StreetFests, the group erected a banner and set up tents allowing businesses to sell items. However, during the most recent event, organizers received permission for both, but at the last minute were informed they were no longer allowed.

“The banner had a huge impact on attendance to the earlier StreetFests,” Bateman said. “I hope we can work together to make things like that work,” he told aldermen.

“We ran into several roadblocks with the town after our third successful StreetFest … just before our fourth one, in October,” he said during an interview with Carolina Public Press.

“The Franklin Board of Aldermen wants to funnel all happenings through the Main Street Program. But, the Main Street Program hasn’t been doing a thorough enough job of communicating with the merchants, nor have they been transparent in their operations,” he said.

The Franklin Main Street Program was formed by the town’s Board of Aldermen in 2006 as an independent organization for the purpose of revitalizing the downtown district of Franklin. The Main Street Program receives funding from the town and reports to the Board of Aldermen.

“Venture Local Franklin would never have been formed had the entities charged with promoting the local economy been performing at an acceptable level,” Bateman surmised.

Weeks before the StreetFest event was to be held, Bateman said he approached the town planner and transportation officials about the banner and got it approved. Then, he said he received an email from the town planner that Venture Local couldn’t put up a banner.

“I called (Franklin Town Manager) Sam Greenwood immediately after I received the email from the town planner,” Bateman said. “After we discussed the issue, he said, ‘OK, someone will call you back.’ (Franklin Town Planner) Derek Roland called back two hours later and said, ‘Put the banner up.’ So, it was approved, denied, then approved again.”

On Oct. 2, the day after the October town board meeting, the town board vetoed the banner and the street closure for the StreetFest.

“We tried to ask for alternative options and even tried to poll the town board, but all we were told was that these issues had to be taken before the town board and the next meeting wasn’t until Nov. 5, which was after our Oct. 26 StreetFest,” Bateman said.

Greenwood did not return calls or emails from Carolina Public Press.

Meanwhile, a Franklin newspaper said it began experiencing problems of its own with the Main Street Program.

During the Dec. 3 town board meeting, Betsey Gooder, publisher of the weekly Macon County News, told board members that the director of the town’s Main Street Program withdrew advertising from the newspaper after a discussion about the newspaper’s coverage of Venture Local.

During a telephone interview with Carolina Public Press, Gooder said Linda Schlott, the Main Street Program’s executive director, approached her after a July folk festival to complain about the amount of publicity Venture Local was receiving in The Macon County News.

“Linda told me that we shouldn’t be giving Venture Local so much press time,” Gooder said. Gooder went to Greenwood to inform him of the confrontation with Schlott.

When it came time a couple of weeks ago for the town’s Winter Wonderland promotion, Gooder called Schlott to find out if she would again approve the Main Street program’s half-page ad for the event. The response Gooder said she received was that she (on behalf of the Main Street program) would not advertise with The Macon County News “as long as derogatory remarks were made about her.”

“Linda (Schlott) has let her personal feelings overshadow her job as representative for the town of Franklin,” Goodard said during the town board meeting, which was recorded and posted online by Bobby Coggins on his Thunder Pig blog.

After Schlott pulled the Main Street half-page ad, Franklin merchants pooled their money and paid for a full-page ad for the Winter Wonderland festival, Gooder said.

But, the advertising is a minor issue, she said.

“It’s time that public servants learn to respect the people they represent,” Gooder said, “that’s why I went before the board.”

During a November meeting to discuss how Venture Local and the Main Street programs could work together better, Schlott told those attending that it is possible for events like StreetFest to continue if they are under the Main Street umbrella, according to Franklin merchant Bonnie Pickartz.

Pickartz and her husband, David, own Goshen Timber Frames and have been financial supporters of the Main Street Program and also have worked closely with Venture Local. The couple even donated office space for the Main Street Program for more than a year.

What happened with the StreetFest is just the culmination of a deteriorating relationship between merchants and the Main Street Program’s director and town leaders, Pickartz said.

“We did everything we were supposed to do. We invited the town board and Linda to our planning meetings. We went to her for permission to use the town square and we jumped through all the hoops to get permission from all the appropriate departments,” she said.

One of the goals for Franklin’s Main Street Program, which was established in 2006, is to “get everyone working toward the same goal,” which Pam Pringle said obviously is not happening.

Pringle and her husband, Neal, own Cobblestone Capital and donated $10,000 to support the Main Street Program, as did the Pickartz couple.

“When my husband and I first became involved in the Main Street Program, we contributed to the master plan and understood that the purpose was to revitalize downtown. To me, the program became something different. The revitalization plan was put on hold and the Main Street Program began hosting events,” Pringle said.

“Who can focus on revitalization when they are busy organizing events?” she asked.

Meanwhile, Venture Local and those who own businesses in Franklin are not getting the support they should, she added.

“I can’t imagine anyone opening up a business in a town where they won’t receive support they need to prosper,” Pringle said.

Schlott acknowledges that there has been miscommunication and unclear guidelines for events, but said she and town leaders are now working on both issues. She said the focus of the Main Street Program has not changed since it was established in 2006.

“The program was set up to help small businesses and to bring shoppers into town with promotions,” she said. “We want to have events, but we need clear guidelines so the events are safe for everyone.”

Suggestions offered in a revitalization plan started, with new signage, town banners and sidewalks completed before economic hard times fell on Franklin, as it did most towns.

“We’re just having to take smaller steps now,” Schlott said, adding that she and town leaders will be working on event guidelines after the beginning of 2013.

Pickartz admitted that since the November meeting, communication has improved and notices of the Main Street meetings are now posted on the town’s website.

“The bottom line is that I’d like to see the Main Street Program in Franklin not only survive, but thrive. However, I don’t believe the program has the resources, nor the vision of the merchant community as a whole; and they need to work with, not against, the merchants’ efforts to revitalize downtown Franklin,” she said.

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Peggy Manning

Peggy Manning is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at pntmoody@bellsouth.net.

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