Tuesday, May 8, 2007

As the World Watches… Fletcher Fails

This issue was visible. This issue affected individuals, businesses, and Kentucky’s crown jewel. Amidst the controversy, Governor Fletcher remained silent. Why? This issue begged involvement. This issue coveted leadership. Once again, why was our Governor absent?

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

The leather couches and flat-screen televisions at Bentley's sports bar were all in place for the Derby weekend rush, but only a handful of customers showed up. Robert Mitchem opened the bar a year ago after investors spent more than a million dollars renovating the red-brick building in Louisville's west end. But on the city's most lucrative weekend of 2006, he said his place turned a lousy $25 profit. "It is the one day that the city itself is on the map and makes money," said Mitchem, the bar's manager. "But we took a tremendous pounding."

Owners of fast-food restaurants, bars and barber shops say a city blockade in their neighborhood will keep them from sharing in the $200 million that's poured into the local economy on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby. The police shutdown of a portion of Broadway - a wide downtown thoroughfare just a few miles from the world's most famous horse race - targets a predominantly black area, business owners said. The business owners filed a lawsuit last month asking a federal judge to ban the police plan, but the court ruled it will stand, at least for this year's Derby. "Supposedly Derby is good business, but we haven't gotten any of it," said Jessie Green, the owner of Big Momma's Soul Kitchen along Broadway.

Louisville police began the blockade to discourage the thousands of shiny, souped-up cars and revelers who had flocked to the area in recent years to hang out and be seen. Broadway's six lanes resembled a parking lot as gridlocked traffic stretched for dozens of blocks.

The unofficial tradition grew in popularity and brought a boon to neighborhood businesses but culminated in violence two years ago. "In '05 when we experienced such violence, the community at large said, 'Hey, this is not acceptable,'" said Lt. Col. Phil Turner, an assistant Louisville police chief. "And that's why we took the position that there would be no cruising and no violence along Broadway. Our goal is to eliminate that."

But business owners said that closes them off from the bonanza most other Louisville businesses enjoy on Derby weekend. The main race and its Friday predecessor, the Kentucky Oaks, attract more than 250,000 people to Churchill Downs over two days. An economic impact study from 2001 found that fans, horse owners, trainers and corporate sponsors spend more than $137 million over the three-day weekend, and that spending generates another $80 million in indirect expenditures. The group of west end businesses that sued said last year's shutdown cost them at least $150,000 in sales, and many ended up closing on what should have been the busiest day of the year.

"Last year, I made no money," said Marilyn Bland, who has owned Lee's Famous Recipe on Broadway for 23 years. Bland said she made so little the night before Derby that she ended up sending her workers home and closing the restaurant for the rest of the weekend, losing about $15,000. "I realize the city's got to do what they got to do to control the crime, but I don't think that making me suffer is the answer," Bland said.

Bland and other business owners met with Dick Gregory, a national civil-rights activist, before a court hearing on the suit this week. Gregory called the police plan heavy-handed and racist. "You have two standards, one for the black community and one for the white community," Gregory said.

The court ruled that the police shutdown "imposed financial and intangible injuries to local residents and business owners," but the public safety issue outweighed those concerns. Louisville's police chief, Robert White, said the city's anti-cruising plan - which uses hundreds of officers - is flexible but the latest method "has the potential of saving someone's life."

Other tactics in past years included relaxing enforcement of minor offenses and alternate events to try and draw cruisers away from Broadway. In 2001, the city spent $325,000 to organize concerts on the other end of town, but attendance lagged and the plan was scrapped. Last year's shutdown was announced after a fatal shooting and rape occurred in 2005. Police have scaled back the plan this year, closing off a smaller portion of Broadway. That will leave Green's restaurant outside the blockade. "I was going to close, but they say they're going to open it up down here, so I'm hoping people will come," Green said.

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