KINGSPORT — A group of downtown business owners has launched its own business alliance to promote the central business district, and they’ve won the financial backing of city leaders for their efforts.
But at whose expense?
Mayor Dennis Phillips said the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has for years allocated funding for the promotion of downtown Kingsport. In years past, that money always went to the Downtown Kingsport Association, a nonprofit organization with a long-standing history in the city.
However, this year the BMA received funding requests from two organizations — the DKA and the new Downtown Business Alliance of Kingsport, an informal group representing more than 70 merchants and property owners in the central business district.
The DBA requested $20,000 from the city, while the DKA, which received $40,000 in city funds last year, requested $75,000 this year. Phillips said the BMA could not ignore the new group’s request.
“My recommendation was that we look at both groups,” Phillips said. “Since both organizations work to promote downtown, it would appear to me the simplest thing is to divide the money.”
The BMA agreed to increase its funding for promotion of downtown from $40,000 last year to $48,000 this year — and split the money between the DKA and DBA.
What is the DBA?
The Downtown Business Alliance of Kingsport got its start last fall when a handful of business owners, feeling the pressures of recession, got together to explore ways to help market themselves and their downtown.
About 10 business owners agreed to pool their money to buy some radio spots advertising special sales for the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally a big shopping day for the malls but not for downtown merchants. Other business owners heard the ads and heard about the DBA, and soon asked how they could get involved.
“The next thing we know, by November we have 45 businesses. By January we have 70 businesses,” said one of the DBA organizers, Kanishka Biddanda, who owns Creative Trust Agency on East Sullivan Street.
Kanishka said the business owners decided to band together and market themselves as a whole because “no other group was doing so.”
“A downtown association — their core mission is to represent downtown merchants and downtown interests. And when downtown merchants are feeling ignored and are feeling like the association has run off track and is doing their own thing, there’s a problem,” Kanishka said.
At the DKA’s office on Main Street, board member Mark Freeman said the DKA supports any efforts to market downtown merchants.
“It’s a good thing that they’re trying to do things to help promote retail. That’s all well and good. It’s not a good thing when you do that in a manner and a plan of destroying everybody else that’s been here trying and working very hard at this for several years,” Freeman said.
He and other DKA board members said they believe the DBA is simply trying to take over the DKA.
“It makes no sense to take an established organization and push it to the side,” Freeman said.
DKA’s history dates back to 1939 with the Downtown Merchants Association, which preceded the chamber of commerce. After functioning as part of the chamber, the DKA formed as an independent organization in 1974, and a paid director was hired in the late 1970s.
Today, the DKA represents 183 members. DKA Executive Director Lisa Childress said the organization has more than 50 years of history in working for downtown.
“How can you turn around and give funding to an organization that’s doing something for six or eight months, and push this organization aside and take half of our funding away from us?” she asked.
“It’s never been our attempt to replace DKA,” Kanishka said.
“It has never been our position to form a splinter group and recreate a second downtown association. It’s not our mission, and it’s not our objective. Our objective is to institute programs that will market and promote downtown Kingsport. We believe that by focusing on solutions, we will eventually effect change,” he said.
In a letter to the Kingsport BMA dated March 30, the DBA of Kingsport asked the city for $20,000 in funding, saying its members had already accomplished much in just a few months with their own financing.
In the letter, the group said it had developed a brand campaign — “Explore Downtown Kings- port” — to help promote the heart of the city. It also launched a Web site at www.ExploreDowntownKingsport.com in March.
Kanishka created the site “as a central point of information for downtown Kingsport,” he said.
Any downtown business owner can join the Web site and post his or her information for free.
In three weeks after its launch, more than 70 businesses added their information to the Web site.
In addition, the DBA is now producing what it calls “The Guide to Downtown Kingsport” — a 16-page full-color booklet that can be inserted in racks for distribution in restaurants, businesses, welcome centers, etc. Kanishka said the guide is a comprehensive listing of all shopping, dining, living, entertainment and arts/culture options in downtown, complete with a pull-out map of the 44-block district.
Kanishka said all businesses were invited to take part in the guidebook for free, with the option of buying a premium listing for $25 or $40 to cover production costs.
About 10,000 copies of the guide are being printed. DBA is working with the Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau to distribute the booklets to visitors centers, welcome centers and businesses throughout a 250-mile radius of Kingsport, Kanishka said.
“So it will be in Knoxville, Asheville and other areas,” he said.
Kanishka said such a guide has never before been produced for the downtown area by any organization.
“It’s these things that right now we’re having to embark on ourselves,” Kanishka said. “The fact that we’re having to put in the overtime in doing this, I think says a lot and shows the need for change within the current structure of the association.”
The DBA is not a formal organization with bylaws and nonprofit status. To seek funding from the city, Kanishka asked the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce to “incubate” the DBA, allowing city funds to be channeled through the chamber to the marketing group, without it having to undergo incorporation.
“I didn’t want to institute a 501c3 corporation within DBA Kingsport because again, we’re not interested in forming another group. So instead of going through an incorporation process, I asked the chamber if we could be an incubated program within the chamber. Therefore the BMA would actually provide funding to the chamber, earmarked for the DBA marketing plan,” Kanishka said.
DKA President Larry Crawford said it sounds to him like “the chamber is driving this.”
A couple of years ago, at the mayor’s direction, the DKA and the chamber met on several occasions to discuss if merging the DKA into the chamber would be feasible. Nothing ever came of those discussions.
Last week, Freeman accused the chamber of causing the latest controversy.
“This is all about the fact that we would not marry with the chamber. So now they’re going to create their own downtown group. That is underhanded. It lacks the respect for the people in this downtown,” Freeman said.
Chamber CEO Miles Burdine said that’s “absolutely, positively not true.”
“I’m sorry they feel that way. What’s going on between DBA and DKA is between DBA and DKA. We’re not a part of that,” Burdine said.
He said the chamber has incubated several programs through the years, including Kingsport Tomorrow and the Downtown Kingsport Association at one point.
“The position we’ve taken on this — we want to support downtown development. We want to bring people downtown. There’s differences of opinion on the best way to do that. My opinion is — we all need to come together, particularly DBA and DKA need to come together to reach an agreement on what’s the best way for them to bring development and people downtown,” Burdine said.
According to the DBA’s March letter to the BMA, if the city grants the DBA’s funding request, the group could be housed within the chamber of commerce, with a part-time staff member with marketing experience to serve as its director.
The letter is signed by Kanishka, Doug Beatty and John Vachon of Urban Synergy, on behalf of the DBA of Kingsport.
DBA sent another letter dated May 18 to the BMA, saying it “simply wishes to improve the downtown association we have.”
“It has the history, the nonprofit status, office building and organizational infrastructure,” the letter states. “In order for our businesses and downtown to succeed, we need our downtown association to better implement its mission; to have board and executive committee representation that better reflects today’s downtown merchants and property owners; to effectively follow Main Street program guidelines; to have better communication with all downtown merchants and property owners; and to more effectively market and promote downtown Kingsport locally, regionally and nationally.”
Beatty said a typical downtown association serves as an advocate and voice for downtown property owners, business owners and residents.
“But this association, somewhere along the line, became an event-driven organization and was less concerned with marketing downtown,” he said.
One of Beatty’s businesses, Broad Street Productions, organizes various events each year in downtown, such as the recent Racks by the Tracks, as well as the Twilight Alive concert series.
“We know events bring people downtown. The problem is — this particular association has turned every event into a fund-raising opportunity,” Beatty said. “We don’t see the value in, for instance, (DKA’s) Evening with the Arts — marketing downtown to people who already come downtown, support downtown, and have $50 for a ticket.”
Beatty said focusing on events was fine for the downtown years ago. But he said things have changed.
“What’s really made this an issue for us — how quickly downtown has evolved. All the sudden, we’ve got residents downtown, we’ve got businesses opening, we’ve got restaurants — things they weren’t having to address years ago, but they’re here now,” Beatty said. “The recession has just made it that much more pressing. If we’re going to keep things on track, we need to get everybody working together to market this thing as a whole.”
Beatty and Kanishka maintain it’s not the DBA’s intent to replace the DKA.
“What our group’s intent is — to be an advocate for improvement,” Kanishka said. “Instead of focusing on the problem and complaining, our group is very much focused on developing solutions to the problems, and we are wanting to implement those solutions with any other group that is willing to assist in seeing downtown Kingsport grow to the next level.”
Childress, the DKA’s director, argued her organization is the voice for all of downtown. She pointed out that the DKA received a $23,000 innovation grant from the Tennessee Main Street Program last year, which it used to market the downtown district. Through in-kind donations and connections, the DKA turned that $23,000 grant into $146,000 worth of advertising, Childress said.
“That’s pretty darn good,” she said.
Fight for board seats
One of the big issues between the DKA and DBA is representation on the DKA board.
Beatty said the DBA has asked that the DKA include more downtown business owners and property owners on its board. Currently some DKA board members are representing their companies and don’t own property or businesses themselves.
“We can appreciate that from a nonprofit’s perspective. However, it’s still not addressing the needs of downtown,” Beatty said.
He said the DBA has asked that some of its members be represented on the DKA board but was told they’d have to wait until board member terms expire at the end of the year.
“We haven’t asked for anything outrageous,” Beatty said. “We haven’t asked anybody to quit or be fired or be replaced or any of those things. We’ve simply asked that the DKA be representative of downtown.”
At the DKA, Freeman said the DBA has asked that its members be given six seats on the DKA board — without having to join the DKA.
“They don’t want to have to be obligated to join. We have a fundamental obligation to our bylaws and to our corporate charter and to our board itself to require that they join the organization first. I think that is really going out on a limb to expect an organization to put five or six members on the board without even respecting the organization enough to join the organization,” Freeman said.
“It’s all about respect. They’ve been invited many times to join this organization. It’s not like the hand hasn’t been out there extended,” he said. “But they’re trying to hijack the organization. That’s the bottom line.”
Crawford said the DKA has only acted on behalf of the betterment of the downtown district.
“I think there’s a lot of personal agendas that are driving some of the decisions that are being made,” he said.
“And yes, we are very threatened. The wagons are circled around us. But is DKA going away? No, we’re not. This will make DKA stronger than ever before,” Crawford said.
He said the organization is already working on a plan to help offset the money lost this year from the city’s budget. And it’s preparing to launch a new marketing initiative to promote the downtown.
“We will stand and fight because this organization has a purpose in downtown Kingsport. The membership that we serve needs us, and they would be very disappointed if we throw in everything right now and walk away, as some of these other folks want us to do,” Crawford said.
Back at City Hall, Phillips said he doesn’t see the need for two separate organizations promoting the downtown district.
“But that’s not the BMA’s decision to make,” he said. “I think the BMA, if faced with this next year, we’ll see if we want to go with one or both. But we have encouraged both organizations to work toward becoming one.”
Phillips, who once served as president of the DKA, said he feels caught in the middle of the two groups.
“It’s not something that the city can settle. We’re just going to have to do the best we can and decide where is the best place we can put our money to promote downtown,” he said.
And the DKA is feeling the pressure.
“We know the scales are not leaning in our direction,” Crawford said. “That’s why we’re going to set ourselves up to be stronger than ever before, whether the city funds us or not.”