Post #619: I only have two hands, and a simple rule for helping local businesses get through this.

I have been asked to focus on the Town of Vienna again for a posting or two.  This request comes from a friend who would like to get the Town to take some simple steps to help Vienna businesses.  So, today I’m back in my role of hectoring the Town government and other public actors.

Caveat:  I have not directly verified the facts in any of these anecdotes below.  So this may be unfair rumor-mongering.  And quite one-sided.  But in the main, I believe my sources to be reliable.

As I only have two hands, the rating scale for today’s actions goes from two thumbs down to two thumbs up.

Let me illustrate with a two-thumbs-up action by a Vienna resident.


GoFundMe:  Pay it Back to Vienna Business

You can read the key details in Post #609.  Better still, you can donate at this link.

But I’m not here to tug at your hearstrings.  But, seriously, at least read the story at the donation link above.

I’m here to make sure you fully understand the situation.  That GoFundMe lists eight businesses.  Of those:

  • Four are closed by law until at least 4/24/2020, and depending on how things go, that might be for the indefinite future (dentistry and similar, pools).
  • One is reduced to streaming services only (fitness).
  • One is open for delivery, but is having difficulty getting product (florist).
  • Two are take-out only (restaurants).

In other words, in this sample of small businesses in Vienna, half are shut outright, by law, and the rest are able to offer only a reduced set of services or products.

On restaurants, a lot of their profit comes from alcohol sales, and I note that the Governor specifically allows them to sell mixed drinks, to go, during the shutdown.  That’s a business-friendly step, and I think that, separately, deserves a thumb up, particularly from a state that is otherwise fairly conservative about alcohol laws.


Chillin’ Parkin’ on Church

When I heard about this one, I literally could not believe it.  I haven’t gone down there to see that the situation remains as it was described to me.  But for a Town where the Powers That Be make such a big deal about Church Street, I was floored to hear this.

I’ll just repeat the story as it was told to me.

Two weeks ago, some merchants on Church asked the Town to put up temporary signs designating some “5 minute pickup only” parking spots along Church. For the obvious reason that a) restaurants can only do takeout, b) the business model is now curbside pickup, and c) that means you need a curbside, to do that.

But also, that’s another attempt by these businesses to remind people that they are open and operating, to the extent possible.

Still hasn’t happened yet, last I heard.  Edit:  Just drove down Church, on my way back from grocery shopping, and that sure appears to be true.

Two thumbs down, for two reasons.  One, this isn’t a big deal.  You know those signs that DPW puts up to announce street sweeping?  As I hear it, they’d settle for something like that. Two, they are entirely at the mercy of the Town to get this done.  The businesses can’t do that themselves, because this is about the road, and only the Town has the right to post signs and such in the public right-of-way.


Parking again:  Anita’s zoning violation.

Again, I’m just passing along what I’ve been told.  And again, I had a hard time believing it.

As with all restaurants in Virginia, Anita’s can only offer take-out.  To be crystal clear, nobody can drive up, park, and come in and sit down for a meal.  So the parking lot, as it was painted, is all-but-useless.  And if you hope to do a lot of curbside pickup, then you want to have an orderly way to get people onto and off of your property, rather than let people scramble around and figure it out for themselves.

Anita’s, please note, is one of few Vienna businesses that does not have convenient front-of-store parking.  They’re sort of shoehorned into that lot, compared to the typical Vienna business.

So they took it upon themselves to re-stripe their parking area, so that customers would know how to get in and out with a minimum of risk.

And the Town promptly cited them for a zoning violation.  We have Rules about Parking in this-here Town.  The mere fact of a global pandemic and likely economic depression to follow is no excuse for violating them.  This is no time to allow people who own a property to figure out how best to use it.

I’m only giving one thumb down for this one because I don’t think the Town has the right to shut them down for a temporary violation of Town code regarding parking standards.  So they could, if they chose, just keep on doing what they are doing, trying to keep that long-standing Vienna business from going under.  Ultimately, if the Town persists in this, it will be, at most, a matter of dealing with the hassle and maybe paying a fine.

The only thing I can liken it to is being hit with a hurricane, and finding out that the government’s main response is to ticket people for littering.  In any case, this isn’t anything I’d call “business friendly”.  And it suggests a government that is, at best, still  on autopilot.


The Great Banner Kerfuffle of Ought-Twenty

Somebody on Team Majdi got the bright idea of helping out Vienna businesses by buying them “Grab and Go” banners.  These would signal to the passing traffic (such as it is) that these restaurants are open for business.  Figuring that, a) at that time, nobody had stepped up and provided those, and b) cash-constrained businesses might not be willing to shell out for them.

And they put their first names, in small letters, at the bottom.  And then the shit hit the fan.

The Town’s appointed business muckety-muck, and apparently self-appointed enforcer of decorum, went on a rampage against those offending businesses.  Harassed them and got her in-group to harass them as well.  Apparently, incorrectly told them that the signs were illegal under the Virginia CFDA.  (Not true, see post #612.)  And basically hectored them until they took those banners down.

And lo and behold, what happens next?  The Vienna Business Association gets the great idea of providing reduced-price Grab and Go banners … wait for it … featuring the tag line of Team Colbert.  Not the VBA logo.

Now that they’ve been called out for that on various forums, I hear that they’ve had a change of heart.  The are doing something to replace the Team Colbert tag line with something else, under the claim that they were simply unaware that (e.g.) every speech and tweet featured that tag line.

So I’ll settle for one thumbs-down for this one.  And one thumbs up.  Because, in the end, it looks like this has encouraged VBA into a positive action.  Anything that helps businesses is good.  Even if it advertises a politician that you may or may not favor.  So that’s a good outcome.  And it would be a good outcome even if VBA weren’t taking the extra step to take the Team Colbert tag line off their signs.

Hey, Team Majdi: Duct tape.  Don’t let those banners go to waste.  Tape over the offending part and give them to businesses that want them.  Unless the mere fact that you dug into your pockets to help Vienna business makes them toxic?  I wouldn’t think so, but I’m clearly having a tough time understanding what passes for pro-business behavior these days.  If it were me, I’d let small businesses know the story, and let them decide for themselves whether hanging those banners, less your names, would help more than they would hurt.


Suspending the rules about temporary signage a.k.a. banners.

The Town of Vienna had the good sense to do that (.pdf).  I’m assuming that every locality in the nation is doing the same.  I’m just giving credit where credit is due for the Town to get on board with that.  Rules still apply, but you don’t have to go through the permit process now.


Conclusion

We all know that, to some extent, the Federal government has stepped up.  The recently passed relief bill has, among its many components, some degree of help for small businesses.

And we know we can do our bit.  Mostly that takes the form of just spending money if and as you are able.  Stock up on consumables.  Change your habits (I’ve eaten more take-out in the last four weeks than I did in the last two years.)

And keep thinking of ways to support local businesses.

Yesterday my wife and I realized that we can accelerate any car maintenance that might reasonably be coming up.  This was prompted by the gi-normous signs in the windows of Just Tires (which is where we get our tires).  So my wife just took our  our elderly car there from some much-needed rehab.  Like a car day spa.  Buff out the haze on the headlights, change all the fluids that need changing, and so on.

Stupid as it sounds, this didn’t even occur to me until I saw that sign.

As a guy who actually went through the heartbreak, frustration, anxiety,and fear of having a business in which I was an owner go bankrupt, I’m going to offer some really straightforward advice.  From the heart.  Because if you’ve never watched a business go under, up close and personal, you have no clue what some of the folks along Maple and Church are going through right now.

The stress piles up one day at at time, one bill at a time, and one hassle at a time.   The longer this lasts, the higher the pile.  Or deeper the hole, whichever you prefer.   I was a mere silent partner (investment only) in my bankrupt  business.  The operating partner had a heart attack in the middle of going bankrupt.  I believe it was the stress that brought it on.  Once you get to the point where you owe everybody money, and they’re all asking for it, it really takes a toll on you.  Only thing I can liken it to is have a good friend slipping away, one day at a time.

So this really isn’t rocket science.  Here’s a simple rule:

Right now, anybody who does anything for struggling Vienna business is doing right.  Anything that works.  And anybody who makes it even one bit tougher for struggling Vienna businesses is being an asshole.  Now might be a good time to figure out which of those you are.

And mask up if you’re going out in public and will be near others.