“If City Council wants to grow the city, this is exactly how you do it,” Louis Azor, owner of the new More Than Vintage clothing store in downtown East Lansing, told ELi late last week.
Azor, a third-year criminal justice major at Michigan State University, is talking about his efforts to have a portion of Division Street outside his shop closed for a day for a “vintage festival.” His business occupies the space at 108 Division St. that used to hold Footgear.
The young entrepreneur started asking the City of East Lansing for this accommodation back in July, hoping to have the festival in August when MSU students returned. But it took until this week for City Council to pass the policy that will allow Azor’s vision to come to life next Saturday, Oct. 1.
Not every business owner has faced this hurdle.
When East Lansing City Councilmember Jessy Gregg decided last year she wanted to hold a “fiber to fashion” festival outside Seams, her downtown fabric store on Grove Street, city staff helped make it happen.
At the time, Gregg was East Lansing’s mayor. All that Council was asked to approve was the street closure.
At last Tuesday’s (Sept. 20) Council meeting, Gregg noted that when she envisioned her festival during the pandemic last year, there was no policy in place for a business owner to request a street closure for an event.
But, she said, “The city jumped in as a co-sponsor, because the city can shut down streets.”
According to a Facebook post by Gregg last year, the city provided “the Downtown East Lansing placemaking crew for help getting the street closed, scheduling music, taking awesome photos, social media help and picnic tables” for her festival.
Asked about whether the city offered to be an official co-sponsor of his vintage festival, Azor said no.
Instead, to honor his request, the council was asked by staff to approve a special new policy.
That policy passed this week on a 3-2 vote after a sharp debate.
The new policy provides up to $6,000 in total this fiscal year to help pay for street closures for private businesses that want to use public streets for special events.
Business owners like Azor who want to take advantage of the new policy will have to pay $350 to help defray the cost of street closures. City staff have told council a street closure of this type could cost the city as much as $3,000 for a single weekend event.
Businesses taking advantage of the new policy will also have to get special insurance coverage for their events.
Voting in favor of the policy were Gregg, Mayor Ron Bacon and Councilmember Dana Watson. All three saw this as a way to help some businesses do something fun and good for economic development.
In opposition were Councilmembers George Brookover and Lisa Babcock. Both said the city needed to stop “picking winners and losers” – using tax dollars and other city resources to help some private businesses and not others.
The issue has been openly debated for several weeks, but it was only this week that the source of the tension became apparent. The situation – with its implicit comparison of how Gregg was treated versus Azor – had become fraught with questions of equity and fairness.
Questions have been raised to ELi about the use of public resources to benefit the commercial endeavor of an elected official, a possible issue under local and state law. (See East Lansing’s Code of Ethics and see pp. 36-37 of the Michigan Municipal League’s Handbook for Municipal Officials).
How did the city’s official co-sponsorship of Gregg’s festival come to be?
“We kind of discussed it, I guess internally, and decided it was in line with [the city’s] economic strategic priorities,” Gregg said at Council this week. “That I would not personally gain any income from doing it and that, therefore, you know, as I did not vote on the street closure. But also [I] did not gain monetarily from the street closure.
“And the same is true this year,” she said. “We’re not charging our [festival] vendors any fees and I’m personally fronting most of the money for planning and printing.”
Gregg said she lost about $2,500 on the festival last year and expects to lose money again this year.
Nevertheless, the city’s contributions to Gregg’s fiber festival appear to have come to several thousand dollars based on what city staff have said about costs of street closures, moving picnic tables, and handling marketing and communications.
Next month, the city will again be a formal co-sponsor of the fiber festival. The city staff have been advertising Gregg’s Oct. 22 event and that Seams is the co-host in the printed Dialog newsletter as well as on the city’s website and social media accounts.
Gregg participated in this week’s vote even while acknowledging her business is directly implicated by the policy.
During this week’s council discussion, councilmembers appeared generally uncomfortable with the situation as they debated with Gregg a policy she had never needed for her business venture – a policy that might change what she can obtain at no cost for her festival from city staff.
Before voting in favor of the new policy, Watson asked whether Gregg would have to pay the $350 fee.
“I am completely prepared to pay that fee,” Gregg said. “Although what is before us [in the new policy] is for merchants who are not co-hosting a festival with the city.”
When asked by a councilmember, East Lansing Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach said he anticipated Gregg would apply through the policy if it passed and she would pay the fee.
Fehrenbach said the cost of supporting the fiber festival would “need to be paid for either through this program or in some other way.”
Although earlier in the meeting Bacon said he always wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety when it comes to potential conflicts of interest, throughout the discussion, no one suggested Gregg be recused.
Gregg has not responded to an email asking why she opted not to seek recusal like she has on past council votes regarding the street closures for her festival.
Brookover and Babcock indicated they found the whole situation problematic.
Brookover raised several concerns, including liability, safety and having the city manager decide who will benefit from the program.
“I don’t really like having the city manager in that position,” Brookover said, “having to make that decision.”
Under the city charter, councilmembers decide on the city manager’s employment and compensation. That puts Lahanas in the position of potentially deciding how much city money will be spent on one of his boss’s business endeavors. (Fehrenbach said during the meeting the plan is to accept applications on a first-come-first-served basis, but administrative decisions will still have to be made about spending.)
Wondering how Gregg came to obtain such special treatment, Babcock asked at Council who gets to decide what will be a city-sponsored event. She did not get a clear answer.
At the meeting, Babcock was openly miffed that when she had wanted to do a city-sponsored town hall last year to talk with citizens about the flooding problems, she was told it was inappropriate for the city to sponsor it because she had wanted to include a private plumber as part of that event.
In the end, Babcock and Brookover were outvoted. The new policy passed.
With the help of the new policy, Azor’s festival will take place Saturday, Oct. 1, without the city having to co-sponsor. He’s paying the $350 fee and getting the special insurance policy required. He anticipates having vintage vendors from around the state, cider and donuts, music, and a football game-watching party when MSU plays at Maryland.
Gregg is also expected to apply for the program for her fiber festival on Oct. 22. She anticipates having fiber arts makers and vendors of many types, along with educational demonstrations.
According to Fehrenbach, the $6,000 allotment approved by Council is likely to fund at most three or four of these events, including Azor’s and Gregg’s. Council can decide next year whether to fund this kind of programming again.