In January, I wrote an editorial asking if the City could possibly bend over any further for the Annapolis Yacht Club and it struck a chord. Well, here we are, six months later and here’s another one that might as well. What the hell is going on in the business community?
The Annapolis Business Association (ABA) was a robust business organization established to foster the business community in Annapolis–all of Annapolis. There were several other specific associations as well that catered to particular sections of the City; but the ABA was the sole association that was all-encompassing of all businesses in the City. And like all associations, it was membership based.
The association formerly known as the ABA
The ABA was far from perfect and lacked any true clout with the City, but it was comprised of key business owners from around the city and they were the organization that the city worked with on the rare occasions that they needed to communicate with the business community, at large. Now, few, if any, in the business community are consulted when the City makes a major decision–parking, gas line installations, etc.
Late last year, for some still unknown reason (my best guess is that it was a a few shots of Jagermeister after one too many Dark and Stormys), the leadership of the ABA decided that it was in the best interests of the business community to merge with a City managed program called Main Streets Annapolis. The leadership felt there was some overlap in the missions and that by consolidating the two organizations, the business community would be better represented. They proposed merging Main Streets Annapolis and the ABA; and then in turn renaming it the Annapolis Partnership (AP) to signify that it was for all of Annapolis. In fact, when they proposed this merger, all smaller business groups were approached and asked to dissolve and join the new association.
But let me take a step back for a minute. Back under Former mayor Cohen, the City created and funded (100%) the Annapolis Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) that was dismantled by Mayor Pantelides in his first year in office. It was tasked with helping city businesses and quite honestly fell on its face. They had a few parties and some businesses came; but many went. In one City Council meeting, Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson (D-Ward 4) correctly attributed the AEDC failure to lack of clear goals and no oversight from the City Council. The AEDC could never truly advocate for businesses because that would involve stepping on the toes of the very people that funded them. In the end, when they were dismantled, their computers were wiped clean and none of the work they had done (or had in progress) was recoverable. And incredulously, the City did not appear to be concerned.
The City is running the business community
Now back to present day. The merger was completed and the City of Annapolis effectively took over the reins of the business association. The City has funded the program (in addition to donations and membership fees), and calls the shots. In fact, when the first Executive Director abruptly resigned, the Director of Planning and Zoning advised the leadership of the AP to not hire a replacement until the City decided which way they wanted to go. I questioned the President of the AP, Doug Smith, about this and he said, “of course they have a say, any investor has a say in how an organization is run.” I own stock in Microsoft, but to date Bill Gates hasn’t taken my call, nor has he done anything about that dismal Windows 10. Yes, Mr. Smith, you need to answer to shareholders; but, they do not call the shots.
This was exactly a concern I expressed back in September 2015 when the merger was first proposed. The business community is allowing the City a “seat at their table” with nothing in return.
And now, after selling the AP as a program for all businesses, it seems that the new Annapolis Partnership is shifting focus to only those businesses that are in the downtown “area” (can you say Ward 1?). In their weekly newsletter on July 27th, new Executive Director Shellie Reed says:
Did you know that the Downtown Annapolis Partnership is part of a nationwide program of The National Trust for Historic Preservation called The Main Street Program™? The Main Street Program ™ is a concept – a universal representation of downtown as the center for social, cultural, and economic activity for our communities across the nation. Downtown is not one physical street; rather it’s the core of the community. The Downtown Annapolis Partnership is the designated Main Street Program™ for the City of Annapolis. Our designated Main Street Program™ District includes: Maryland Avenue, Church Circle, State Circle, West Street, Main Street, City Dock and Market Space. We will focus our efforts in all of the areas in the designated Main Street Program™ District. We are so excited about what we will accomplish together!
And in a week’s time, the organization solidified their position as representing the downtown businesses with a name chance from Annapolis Partnership to Downtown Annapolis Partnership. From new Executive Director Shellie Reed in their August 3rd newsletter:
We are now officially named “Downtown Annapolis Partnership,” which more clearly identifies us as a designated Main Street Program™. One of the many benefits of receiving and maintaining this prestigious designation is that we are part of a nationwide support network. Our Main Street Program™ network is comprised of national and state organizations, as well as, diverse cities across the nation who share deep historical roots.
Majority of businesses in City are not included
This mission specifically excludes City businesses located in the Design District (Chinquapin Round Road/West Street area), West Annapolis, Outer West Street (Westgate Circle to Route 2), SoFo District (Forest Drive from Chinquapin Round to Bay Ridge), Eastport, and all other businesses that do not fit in the tight boundaries mentioned. Is the $200 per year membership fee of value to businesses in any of these areas if the mission of the organization it to only represent the select few downtown? Right now, if my math is correct, of the 143 members, 63 are located in the designated area for AP. If I allow some wiggle room (example Hobo is on Green Street two doors off Main Street) that number climbs to 79 members. But what about the other 45% of the members? More businesses are located outside of the downtown area than in it. And several that are in downtown are considering moving out. To be honest, since December’s Midnight Madness program, we have seen very little from the Annapolis Partnership (now DAP I guess) in terms of actual programs and initiatives to support any businesses or even in the ones in their designated areas. But in fairness, the former Executive Director was likely using that time to arrange her exit, and the new Executive Director was only hired in June.
There is no representation of Eastport, anything on West Street much past Lemongrass and Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge, nothing on outer West Street, West Annapolis, the Design District, the Forest Drive corridor, or the businesses in the SoFo District.
For any City to be a thriving City, the government needs to serve both residents and businesses. For years, I have said that the business community should have a City Council seat. Ideally, it would be a full voting seat, but politics being what they are in Annapolis, a non-voting seat might have a better shot. Residents complain about a dying Main Street, yet never want to listen to the needs and desires of the businesses. The City has ZERO skin in the business game as long as the buildings are present. They receive their share of property taxes–the same share–no matter if the building is vacant for a decade (hello Fawcett’s I’m talking to you) or it is a thriving business. The tax revenue remains the same. In fact, not only is the complaint that the city does little to help local businesses, most business owners will tell you that they make it nearly impossible to open a business with the disproportionate amount of red tape involved and uncooperative city departments. I have heard from a number of local residents that they are avoiding the City for shopping and opting for the mall or the Annapolis Towne Centre. The main reason I have heard is the City’s latest “improvement” — SP+ Parking. SP+, for being as large as they say, keeps stepping on their own toes. Hacked computers, increased costs to park, lack of promised “parking ambassadors” and unclear signage is really doing more to convince locals to avoid, and visitors to not return to downtown than it is to embrace it.
To me, it looks like the ABA got screwed in this deal. What once was a thriving business organization has now been downsized to a very small geographic area which is controlled by City Hall. It is also worth noting that the small geographic area served by Annapolis Partnership is also the same one that typically is considered “required” to be elected Mayor. I am not sure why the Aldermen and Alderwomen that represent the other Wards are not up in arms over this. I am not sure why the businesses in the other Wards are not upset.
West Annapolis has been struggling for years and they are not even the ugly step child of Main Street–that belongs to Maryland Avenue. West Annapolis is the Rosemary Kennedy of Annapolis–they are not doing as well as the rest, so we’ll just put them away and hope no one mentions them again.
The Forest Drive corridor has some potential and is seeing an uptick in interest with the new carwash, some new restaurants, a renovation to the Bay Ridge Center, the scepter of Crystal Springs, and more. But it is a filthy corridor littered with trash, discarded heroin needles, sex toys and condoms. The sidewalks are in disrepair, and the City never enforces their snow removal regulations. In fairness, they don’t in Ward One either–but they have the Midshipmen there to dig out the streets.
I think it is time that the greater business community comes together (perhaps the remnants of the ABA who have buyers remorse?) and forms a cohesive organization to lobby for and advocate for the good of a thriving business community that encompasses ALL of Annapolis and not just a small segment serving a minority of businesses. This organization should demand a seat on the Council, and be prepared to identify and financially back Mayoral and Aldermanic candidates that will make that happen during the next election. Who knows, maybe one will materialize and give the current Mayor a run for his money–he has a lot! You never know!