The merchants and storeowners, however, do have their own mouths to feed, and those of their families and employees. They were complaining that it’s just a small number of the people attracted by the soup kitchen that were undercutting their ability to attract customers. These few remain in Frog Level between meals, some openly drinking alcohol or using drugs or urinating around the district. Others reportedly camp or sleep around the area. Customers witnessing this behavior are sure to never come back, merchants said.
“A food bank and vibrant go-to shopping district will never work. Decisions need to be made. Is Frog Level going to be a real commercial district or not? The economy is improving. The time is now,” said Tom Sheppard, owner of Bear Den Antiques in Frog Level.
It seems the merchants and those who manage The Open Door soup kitchen have discussed the problems and could not make any meaningful headway. The soup kitchen is a mission of Longs Chapel United Methodist Church, and merchants and church officials were holding meetings to discuss the problem until last fall, when negotiations stalled. The Open Door refuses to feed those who have been drinking, but it does not try to control or monitor the actions of those who may hang around Frog Level between meals.
In a letter to merchants, The Open Door manager Perry Hines wrote that, “It has been determined that further meetings at this time would not accomplish what we would all desire.”
All agree the problem is complicated, even Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. He said loitering is not a crime, and much of the criminal activity he could potentially cite the homeless with would not solve the problem.
“It’s what I call the quality of life crimes — the drunk and disorderly conduct, the drinking in public, the littering,” said Hollingsed.
Another storeowner pointed out how perplexing the problem is to solve. Even if merchants see a crime being committed and then call the police, that means a squad car with lights on will soon pull somewhere close to a store and make an arrest — another incident that is likely to discourage a customer from making a return visit.
Anyone who visits Frog Level frequently can see and feel the energy that the current crop of merchants has brought to the area. It is definitely on an uptick, and this in an area that has for decades been unable to muster all the tangible and intangible qualities necessary to build a lasting and vibrant business climate.
I think the merchants have a valid point. I don’t, however, think closing The Open Door is the answer.
The only hope for a solution is for town officials to lead efforts to jumpstart talks between the soup kitchen management and Frog Level merchants. That won’t solve the problem, but it’s likely the only avenue that could eventually lead to a solution — or a compromise.
“We just can’t thrive in the current situation,” says Teri Siewert, owner of the Mahogany House Gallery. “What will happen is we will leave and Frog Level will go back to being what it was in the past.”