Franklin downtown soul-searches for solution to discord
The division along Franklin’s Main Street is tough to see with the naked eye. Passersby appear oblivious to the battle lines. The lazy rhythm of downtown, its quaint storefronts and ornamental lamp posts serve up a idyllic postcard, quietly concealing contention.
The division is also difficult to peg along traditional new-old lines. It is a divide based more upon vision than age or station.
“It’s not just young folks,” explained Corey McCall. “It’s individuals that want to see a more progressive community.”
McCall grew up in Franklin. He went to school at Western Carolina University and then returned home to open Outdoor 76, an outdoors shop on Main Street, with Rob Gasbarro.
“We chose to open our doors right here on Main Street because we care about this community,” McCall said. “This is where Rob and I want to call our home.”
The store is full of hiking boots and hammocks. Customers check out sleeping bags and breathable, zip-off pants. With hikers heading out on the Appalachian Trail, it’s a busy time of year for the store.
“The biggest problem I see is the lack of communication,” Gasbarro said, stepping away from the register and dipping into the divide.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s one that the Outdoor 76 owners and several other downtown merchants have complained about for a while.
The group of downtown merchants have cried foul, charging that the powers-that-be are not including them in efforts to improve downtown and ignoring ideas they could bring to the table. The discontented were told by town officials to expect change, to expect a more inclusive environment.
Gasbarro hasn’t noticed a change.
“No, not one bit,” he said.
“I feel like those statements were made trying to be politically correct,” said McCall.
People in Franklin will soon have a venue in which to voice their thoughts and concerns. But the venue is not being provided by town officials.
“We want to give the opportunity to get all the ideas out on the table,” explained Matt Bateman.
Bateman owns Stay and Play in the Smokies. He’s also a co-founder of Venture Local Franklin. Recently, the organization has partnered with the League of Women Voters to offer a public forum for community exchange of ideas.
“We just want to be as inclusive as we can be and not just have a small few make decisions that effect the entire community,” Bateman said.
The rise of the other
The tension on Main Street probably peaked in the freewheeling fall of 2012. That’s when a group of merchants organized the Street Fest series in an effort to draw people downtown.
Once a month, bands played and businesses stayed open late. Merchant tents were set up in Main Street parking spaces and a Zumba dance troupe took to the streets.
Eventually, town officials put a stop to the festivities with talk of permits and proper channels. But the Street Fests were more than unsanctioned parties — they were a sign of a growing frustration among downtown merchants.
Largely, the frustration was directed at the Main Street Program.
Although funded with public money, the Main Street Program is a non-profit organization charged with ensuring that Franklin’s downtown area is thriving. Town officials point to the non-profit as the go-to entity for downtown-related business.
Linda Schlott, the program’s director, oversees a handful festivals throughout the year that draw large crowds to downtown.
Some people, however, felt that the organization was not doing its job. And they apparently still feel that way.
“From the Main Street Program to Main Street merchants, there is a huge disconnect,” said McCall. “There’s still a very large disconnect.”
That frustration was the impetus for the creation of Venture Local Franklin, a group also focused on invigorating downtown, nurturing businesses and promoting the area.
“Venture Local would have never come about, in my opinion, if things were being done and the town was being marketed,” estimated Bateman.
The call of the gazebo
Just outside the doors of Outdoor 76, sits Franklin’s gazebo. It’s gotten more attention lately than most gazebos are accustomed to.
The gazebo will take center stage at the first downtown community forum next week.
“My initial hope is we could do multiple meetings like this, not all about the gazebo,” explained Angela Moore, an organizer of the event. “We hope to do this again as future issues arise.”
But the gazebo was the issue that happened to arise earlier this year, it and touched off a new round of salvos by merchants claiming they’ve been shut out.
Plans for a redesign of the structure were presented by the Main Street Program. Merchants not plugged into the official loop felt left out of the conversation and harshly criticized the new design that was floated, claiming it was a poor reflection of downtown’s character.
The Franklin Town Board of Aldermen suggested the plans be sent back to the drawing board. They were not hip, however, on an open forum meeting to hash out the subject.
“It was kind of shut down in the meeting,” recalled Alderman Patti Abel. “They came and asked for a town hall meeting and it just didn’t happen.”
When Bateman posed the idea of a gazebo discussion, he borrowed from a notion put forth by recently-elected Mayor Bob Scott, who proposed a whole series of monthly town hall meetings to improve dialog with merchants.
“What kind of spurred all this — our new mayor, Bob, basically ran his campaign on being open to the public,” Bateman said.
The majority on the board were resistant to Scott’s idea of the town hall meetings, however.
Alderman Verlin Curtis cited an opinion from the town’s attorney that stated that a gathering of multiple board members at a forum at which town issues are discussed could risk violating public meeting laws.
“It is kind of a legal issue,” Curtis said. “We have an ordinance about how we conduct our meetings.”
Curtis said he could see the usefulness of a “project meeting,” but wasn’t sure how effective a pure open forum would be.
“I don’t see the advantage of having meetings that are open to anyone to speak, because you don’t always get the ones that want to say something positive,” Curtis said. “A lot of times you get people who have negative input.”
Cutting ribbons, kissing babies
Mayor Bob Scott sits in a Main Street coffee shop losing his cool. He’s coming to a slow, painful realization: his office is largely ceremonial.
“Sometimes I’m looking at the ceiling and thinking, ‘what the hell have I gotten into,’” Scott says.
Friends have taken notice of the mayor’s mood. His allies on the town board are particularly aware.
“I certainly feel for him,” said Alderman Barbara McRae. “I can see that it’s frustrating. He thought he would be able to do more.”
Scott campaigned on accessibility. He told voters he would listen to them.
“Come in and talk, cuss me out, whatever,” Scott explained. “Anything they wanted to do, I wanted it, because I want open government.”
One of the things the mayor wanted to do after winning election was to host town hall forums. He envisioned events that facilitated the conversation between elected officials and constituent.
“Just talk about things,” Scott said. “Come with their concerns and their ideas.”
The mayor particularly wanted to provide an opportunity for people who felt they weren’t being heard in traditional venues. These people were some of the same people who had previously raised such concerns, people the mayor refers to as “the future of Franklin.”
“Many of the young entrepreneurs here felt left out, that they don’t have a voice,” Scott said. “One thing I’d really like to do is open this town up to some new ideas, some new voices. If I have a legacy, I’d like it to be that we opened the door for young people.”
Not only were Scott’s town hall meetings quashed, but some on the town board went a step further to put him in his place. They asked the town attorney to render an expert opinion on what, if any, authority Scott had to speak on behalf of the town. The upshot: Scott certainly has free speech, but nothing he does or says officially represents the town without the blessing of the whole town board .
“I can cut ribbons and kiss babies and all that kind of stuff,” Scott said. “It seems like they don’t want me doing anything for the town.”
A forum by any other name
It is not lost on Franklin’s mayor that the upcoming Venture Local meeting appears very similar to the town meetings he wanted to host.
“They’re a substitute for what I wanted to do,” he sighs.
The Venture Local folk, of course, are also aware they are carrying the mayor’s banner. They are striving toward the same ends.
“We just really want to bring everyone together,” said Moore, “so we can have an exchange of ideas.”
Organizers of the forum have invited downtown stakeholders and town officials. They are hoping to provide elected officials an opportunity to talk with stakeholders in a less formal environment than is found within the confines of a board meeting’s public comment period.
“Elected officials, if they come, will get a chance to speak with the public,” Moore said.
Both McRae and Abel said they plan to attend the upcoming forum. If enough aldermen attend, it could trigger open-meeting concerns.
“It’s possible,” said Town Manager Warren Cabe. “And the way around that is to make sure it’s advertised.”
To that end, the town has announced the forum, just in case. Just as it would do with any meeting of the aldermen. Or as it would need to do for a mayoral forum.
McRae said she hopes that the town officials can determine a way to accommodate such meetings on its own.
“I would really prefer that the town be able to do it,” she said.
In the meantime, the alderman is hoping that the Venture Local forums are fruitful.
“You don’t want to discourage people who are excited and have energy and want progress,” McRae said. “You’ve got to harness that energy.”
She’s also hoping that engaged members of the community will realize that patience is required when working with a government agency.
“I think what’s happening, some of the people who are organizing this meeting, they want things to happen a little faster. And, boy, I can understand, government moves like molasses,” McRae said.
The alderman points to the town board’s recent unanimous approval of a bid to place a brewery in Franklin’s old town hall. She notes how such a move required time and urges brimming with ideas and energy to exercise patience when dealing with town government.
“If you have a great idea, you can’t just jump up and down and say ‘do this,’” McRae said.