COMMENTARY: Business owners should pay to use public streets

Friday, August 19, 2011 | 4:45 p.m. CDT

I understand that Summerfest was started as a way to get more activity downtown, and it sure accomplishes that. In fact, to a number of downtown merchants, that seems to be the problem.

Or, actually, their petition to City Hall in recent months was that Richard King is being granted use of the public street for (usually) personal gain. 

After this controversy was raised, the City Council then permitted a nearby restaurant to sell alcohol at a recent Summerfest. This led King to move his most recent event north a few blocks, to his own private yard adjacent to Mojo’s, which he also owns. 

Amends were again made to some degree. The final two Summerfests of the year will now be back on Ninth Street, and most recently the City Council passed a temporary fix to the street-closure ordinance. 

Unfortunately, though it addresses a number of concerns here and now, this issue will likely still fester until a more market-based paradigm is considered.

The petitioners have a point — they have invested in their own respective establishments and outdoor patios with their own money, on their own land. 

And while they would be the last ones to condemn Richard King for likewise holding events in the confines of his Blue Note establishment, or on other land he owns, their beef is about one person’s access to prime public real estate (the street) for private profit. 

On the other hand, Richard King and Co. are bringing people downtown, and that rising tide lifts all boats — at least boats anchored near the event. So he is obviously no con man. 

Actually, it’s a great idea to have a street festival, and I can’t blame him for asking to use the street to leverage that resource.

In fact, maybe he has a natural advantage of having a prime location in front of his place, which yields economic synergies others cannot create as easily in other parts of downtown.

He is likely innovating to create economic and cultural wealth in a more original way than other local entrepreneurs, for a number of reasons.

But the private use of the public street seems to be the rub, and this is a legitimate concern.

Let’s compare. What if some private entity owned the area that Summerfest wished to be held on — an adjacent private parking lot, or Woodstock-esque farm or the Missouri Theatre?

Well, obviously, a rental fee would be involved, as Summerfest would be receiving something of significant value (temporary use of real estate). And any event organizer would likely be willing to invest a reasonable amount for that rental fee for his event. He has invested in his own land, but he also finds value in the temporary use of land he does not.

So, imagine for a moment the public did not own the street. The street owner would surely have a process to allow for others’ use of it, under what conditions, risk contingencies and what usage fee to charge. 

So, is not the fact that City Hall allows entities special use of something the city owns, and (beyond nominal filing fees) doesn’t charge a dime for it, the root deficiency here? 

Are not the representatives of Columbia giving away the use of a valuable public recourse that only very few people use in such a way? Are residents/taxpayers being ripped off here? Not by some charlatan, but by a legitimate businessman who only has this inadequate policy to apply. 

Doesn’t this just lend itself to favoritism, or at least the accusation of it?

I have a proposal. The city should institute market-based street closure fees. 

This is not without precedent.  Churches have fees for weddings held in their sanctuary. Schools charge groups who rent their gym. 

Shakespeare’s Pizza (one of the petition signers), Hy-Vee and other places rent their party rooms to customers for a set fee, or at least a deposit, minimum food orders, or other stipulations.

In fact, I know one place that has a nice exception — they offer a discounted rate to nonprofit groups. Citizens would likely appreciate it if the city would also adapt this principle by instituting a reasonable fee schedule for for-profit events such as Summerfest, Roots 'N' Blues or Harpo’s on game day.

Then, the city should offer free or reduced street closure fees to nonprofit groups, such as the Boone County Fair parade, Earth Day, Truman the Tiger rappeling off The Tiger Hotel for charity or frat guys sitting in a huge rocking chair for a cancer benefit.

Instead of putting more complex rules on the books, the city should consider a reasonably flexible street-closure policy to encourage lively events and cultural exchange, then charge a special usage fee for it.

Wouldn’t the petitioners be more satisfied if Richard King were at least paying for the use of the public street?

Charging private users who stand to realize value from a public resource is fair and equitable. This is similar to the way public parking rates exist to reflect the value of renting a parking spot. Why not open up a similar discussion about street-closure rates? 

Such fees are better than subsidization (as is still the policy now), because those who don’t close streets don’t pay, only event organizers do. Maybe this would raise some much-needed capital to fix a few of those potholes, too.

Richard King is not a shady crook. An inadequate policy that undersells a desirable and valuable public resource by giving it away naturally lends itself to confusion, resentment and bickering.

This was bound to happen at some point as the demand for downtown street closures has increased (not a bad thing).

Unfortunately, the policy by the owner of the streets (the city) is not adequate to deal with that demand.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on 89.5FM KOPN radio on Tuesday nights from 5 to 6 p.m.

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matt arnall August 19, 2011 | 5:36 p.m.

Fees are not the issue. The issue is that all business should have the same ability to make a profit at an event being held on public land. It is unethical to allow certain businesses or groups to be the only ones to profit as the event blocks access to nearby business. I suppose a fee might allow a public space to become private for the duration of the event, but what would the city use the fees for? Education or police staff would be nice, but we certainly don't need to finance another parking garage.

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman August 22, 2011 | 10:30 p.m.

Such fees should remain in the street utility, as parking fees of various sorts go into the Parking Utility. Keep a closed loop whenever possible. Is a deeper issue, and would necessitate a different social contract with citizens and the public sector.

But heavens no, no more parking garages...unless a private developer wishes to fund on their own, but of course fat chance on that either.

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