Please allow me to preface this piece by stipulating that members of the City Council Committee of the Whole did the right thing when they voted to bring the July 8 bike race back to Third Street on a Sunday. The citizens love it, it puts thousands of new eyes into our unique downtown businesses, and hosting an event with international Olympic-caliber athletes certainly doesn’t hurt our image.
Unless something sinister happens, that 8-to-1 margin will most likely hold up when the full council makes its final decision tonight.
Ah! But as always seems to be the case with Geneva, this no-brainer event couldn’t move forward without the appropriate dose of drama. I suppose Ian Anderson was right when he reminded us that “nothing is easy.”
Yes! In a perfect demonstration of just how the gotcha game is played, three disgruntled merchants and one shortsighted alderman turned what should’ve been a 15-minute love fest into a two-hour ordeal.
What I found particularly disappointing is that one of those merchants was Little Traveler owner Mike Simon, a downtown landlord I’ve been lauding of late. Rather than debate the race on its merits, or the lack thereof, he unleashed a vitriolic attack that literally made me cringe.
Simon started by accusing Andy Garrison and Breakaway Promotions of blatantly lying on the Geneva merchant survey they were required to conduct. Simon somehow got marked down as a “no opinion” when it would be putting it mildly to to say he’s dead-set against the race.
Then he did his best to rile up the aldermen by claiming Breakaway blatantly challenged the council’s authority by listing the event as a done deal on their website. Why, these cads even had the temerity to try and sell advertising to some of these vehemently opposed downtown businesses!
Even though St. Mark’s rector Mark Tusken was there, Simon spoke for him, he spoke on behalf of a plethora of phantom outraged merchants, and generally made it sound like this race would be much worse than Sherman's march to the sea.
After him, Serenity Jewelry owner Jamie Bellandi made it sound even worse. She described how, the last time the race ran down Third Street, she only sold one bracelet to the mother of a racer who said if her son knew she was shopping at her store he’d basically beat her with a broken bike chain.
Ms. Bellandi also inferred that she was misrepresented by the organizers until it was pointed out that she was actually listed as “opposed.”
Next up was Jane Briner, who said she was representing the 24 merchants at the Shops At 127, proceeded to declare the race was worthless, poorly attended, the organizers were nefarious, and closing Third Street for just one Sunday would spell downtown Geneva’s doom.
When Rob Kelley, a friend, local businessman and accomplished racer, spoke in support of the event, Bellandi and Griner proceeded to heckle him like a really unfunny version of the Muppet Show’s Stadler and Waldorf.
Kelley made the mistake of engaging them, which probably didn't make things any better. That said, Rob did get Mike Simon to admit The Littler Traveler wouldn’t even be open that Sunday. Facts will trump the gotcha game every time.
Not to pick on Alderman Craig Maladra too much, but the councilman who made a point of admonishing the gallery during the Pure Oil building debate didn’t feel the need to intervene when two of our esteemed merchants exhibited the same type of behavior.
Even COW meeting chairman Ralph Dantino seemed to buy into this verbal assault until Breakaway Promotions spokesperson Andy Garrison, who is adept at dealing with cantankerous City Council members, completely blew the naysayers’ arguments away.
He explained that they could not associate the word “tentative” with the race or no one would show up. As an inveterate 5K-er, I can personally tell you that if a race is listed as tentative, I’ll simply move on to one that isn’t.
Garrison added that they did their best with the city’s late survey request, coming down from Wisconsin twice before they resorted to contacting the difficult-to-reach business owners by phone. He eloquently described how, after attending the first race, his own mother has become a Geneva shopaholic.
He explained they went back to Sunday because most merchants preferred it to Saturday. The reason for returning to Third Street was that all successful bike races run straight through the main business district because that kind of buzz was essential for the race’s survival.
As Alderman Don Cummings so aptly noted, “Presentation matters. There’s a reason the Tour de France finishes on the Champs Elysee.”
Garrison concluded that it’s in the promoter’s best interest to ensure the race is a success for all of Geneva. If Geneva doesn’t have a good day, he knows they won’t be back. He offered to start the race later to help St. Mark's and provide a free race announcement on behalf of any business affected by the Third Street closure.
Though Simon, Bellandi and Griner did Geneva a disservice by resorting to base tactics, it was alderman Sam Hill who really got my goat.
He was belligerent, discourteous and outright dismissive of the race organizers, who’ve bent over backward to make this event work—for everyone. If I had to face down that kind of vitriol from a public official, I’d have taken my business elsewhere.
I was happy to see that, when Hill made a motion to move the race back to Fourth Street, the motion simply died for lack of a second.
So, while some merchants insist on doing their best to kill our downtown by inches, we really have to give the City Council credit for seeing both the forest and the trees.