The Lexington Parking Authority last week created four temporary street parking spaces and a loading zone to help Filte Irish Imports and other nearby businesses that have been hurt by disruption caused by construction of CentrePointe construction, right, and renovation of 21C Museum Hotel in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen
The Great Depression left one-fourth of American workers without jobs in 1933, prompting the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to launch a series of relief efforts known as the New Deal.
When conservatives in Congress balked, arguing that market forces would sort out things in the long run, New Deal architect Harry Hopkins famously replied: “People don’t eat in the long run. They eat every day.”
I have been thinking about that quote since November, when a mutual friend told me that Liza Hendley Betz’s little shop was in trouble.
I have known Betz since soon after she opened Fáilte Irish Imports on South Limestone Street in 2001. She did a good business in Celtic gifts and comfort food for her fellow Irish immigrants until the street in front of her shop was suddenly closed in 2009 for an 11-month reconstruction project.
Betz moved Fáilte (pronounced FALL-cha) a couple of blocks away, next to McCarthy’s Irish Bar. It was a great location until the CentrePointe project turned the block across from them into a massive hole and took away their street parking.
Then, renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel closed Upper Street above their block and constricted Main Street traffic. People started avoiding the mess, and Fáilte’s business suffered.
After I wrote about it, Lexington rallied to save the little shop. Thousands shared my column on social media. Other small businesses such as Bourbon ‘n Toulouse restaurant and the Cup of Common Wealth coffee shop sent their customers to Fáilte. Even the mayor’s staff stopped in for holiday shopping.
“People came out of the woodwork,” Betz said. “It was the best Christmas ever.”
With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, Betz and the owner of McCarthy’s recently asked city and LexPark officials if one of their street’s two lanes could be closed for parking until Upper Street above them reopened. The officials thought it was a great idea. Last week, four metered parking spaces and a loading zone were created.
While I am happy things are working out for Fáilte, there is a bigger issue here worth serious thought and action.
With Lexington’s new focus on infill and redevelopment, the central business district could be a rolling construction zone for years to come. If we are lucky.
That will be great for Lexington in the long run. In the short run, though, specific strategies should be developed to help small shops, restaurants and bars remain open amid the mess and disruption.
Most of these entrepreneurs don’t have deep pockets. But their businesses give downtown its unique character, and it is in Lexington’s best interests to keep them going.
How could Lexington minimize the collateral damage of infill and redevelopment? Several business people and city officials I talked with had good ideas. Among them:
■ When tax-increment financing districts are approved for new development, could some TIF funds be earmarked to help existing businesses during the transition? This help could range from cash compensation to special signage and other promotional help.
■ In addition to temporary parking solutions, might LexTran adjust routes to make it easier for customers to get to affected businesses?
■ Could local media companies offer discounted advertising to affected businesses, perhaps in return for long-term contracts?
■ Could city government appoint a liaison to work with affected business owners, to keep them informed of street closings and other disruptions, trouble-shoot problems and brainstorm ways to make things easier?
■ Could Commerce Lexington, Local First Lexington and other business organizations promote these businesses through social media and other venues?
■ Could the University of Kentucky business school’s faculty and students lend their expertise and advice?
■ Could developers of new projects be better neighbors, involving surrounding businesses in their construction planning process to minimize disruption?
Betz said she and other downtown entrepreneurs are excited about the changes happening around them. They know it will be good for their businesses in the long run — if they can keep eating until then.
“This whole thing has given me new hope,” Betz said. “We just don’t want people to forget about us little guys.”