The dispute is between the 70-year-old Downtown Kingsport Association and the recently formed Downtown Business Alliance. Both organizations aim to promote downtown, the former mainly through events, and the latter mainly through marketing efforts.
The DBA is a loosely formed group of business owners who assembled in the fall of last year to explore ways to help market themselves and the downtown. The group’s organizers include John Vachon, Doug Beatty and Kanishka Biddanda and say they represent more than 75 downtown businesses and people who have purchased more than $17 million worth of property since 2004.
The BMA got involved when the DBA requested $20,000 during the city’s budget process earlier this year to help meet a marketing need they said was not being met by the DKA. DKA board members have said they believe the DBA is simply trying to take over the DKA.
During the budget process, the BMA gave each group $24,000 and suggested they find a way to work together.
Both groups participated in a mediation process with attorney Bill Wray in July, but no agreement was reached. In August and September, the two groups continued to talk to Wray, with the DBA submitting a list of concerns and proposed changes to the DKA.
During a BMA work session on Monday, Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote, who has been involved in the discussion, gave an update to the board on the dispute along with his recommendation on moving forward.
Mallicote’s recommendation is for the city to enter into a contract with the DKA for the full $48,000, with a condition being the DKA adopt some changes to its structure. Some of the changes include DKA board member terms being no more than three years, all outgoing board members must sit out a year, and only one board member per business and per household.
Mallicote said the suggested changes represent sound nonprofit governance.
“Things most folks would say make a lot of sense. A lot of nonprofits have chosen to operate (that way),” Mallicote said. “It represents the middle ground between two extreme positions and requires the two organizations to work together.”
Mallicote said time is of the essence to get this matter resolved in order to help promote the holiday season and events.
Alderman Larry Munsey said the recommendations are a good step in the right direction but said the time frame is too short.
“We’re putting a gun to the DKA’s head and saying you have to do this,” Munsey said. “I think within this framework we can do this, but the time frame needs to be extended. I don’t think we’ve given a fair shake at resolving these issues, and we need to do that.”
Mallicote said the suggested changes were given to the DKA in July.
“We’ve chewed up thousands of dollars of donated time, and we’re inches closer to a resolution and not miles,” Mallicote said.
Munsey said he had a better way to resolve the problem, noting he has more experience than Mallicote has been alive.
“If you have a solution, I’d love to hear it,” Mayor Dennis Phillips said.
Munsey said if the BMA gave him two weeks to work with the two groups, he could solve the dispute.
“It would be a better solution than what we’ve tried for the past three months,” he said.
Alderman Ken Marsh said he was appalled that he was looking at the suggestions for the first time on Monday.
“I really think this is inappropriate, to make a decision, whatever it is,” Marsh said. “I think by taking this packet of information, then voting on this the first meeting in October ... to resolve this here with a 15-minute discussion is not giving weight to the process.”
Phillips said Kingsport has spent more time on this $48,000 donation than it did on the higher education center.
“When you have friends walking up to friends and won’t speak to them ... it’s been so divisive and personal. How do we do the best for downtown Kingsport?” Phillips said. “It’s never been about the money. It’s been about what we’re getting for the money. This is just too divisive, and I’m not willing to drag it out past the next meeting.”
Larry Crawford, president of the DKA, said he was willing to sit down with Munsey and try and resolve the dispute.
“Hopefully, we can come together with the DBA and work together to promote business downtown,” Crawford said. “That’s our resolve, too. That’s what we want.”
Biddanda said the issue is not with advertising dollars, but whether the community and taxpayers believe the city’s money is going to an association that is as effective as it could be. Biddanda said the DKA should not have the same people in the leadership role year after year.
“We now have people throughout downtown with a vested interest who are willing to take on leadership roles,” Biddanda said. “A majority of the DBA businesses are current or former DKA members, and they tried to work from within and they felt alienated.
“If the city is going to be funding the group, they need to be sure the group is as effective as possible with those dollars.”
Vachon said the DKA was not willing to change.
“We’re trying to come together to effect change and work with DKA to help promote downtown,” Vachon said.Mark Freeman, past president of the DKA, said the DKA offered and pleaded with DBA members to join the DKA for years.
“This has been shoved with an amazing amount of push. We need to get civil and honest and ask where we want to go,” Freeman said.
Joyce Grills, owner of the Haggle Shop and former DKA member, said the dispute needs to come to an end.
“There’s no reason why these two groups can’t come together. If you love downtown it won’t be a problem,” Grills said. “We need to be one, and I’d love to see it be the DKA. I’d love to see young people put on the board and see a new board. I really feel it’s needed.”
Phillips said at the Oct. 6 BMA meeting the board would be voting on Mallicote’s proposal.
“There would be an answer after the next board meeting on what to do,” Phillips said. “I challenge and encourage the two groups to spend as much time as it takes to see if they can come to us and be decided on what to do.”
“We’re going to clear this up. Period,” Marsh said.