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Breaking: Council to fund Main Street program for six months

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By Tom Wilmoth

Bedford Main Street, Inc. will receive funding from the city of Bedford for the next six months, but representatives from the organization must appear before city council in July to explain how they plan to reorganize.

    The organization has been in limbo for the past six months since the city sent a letter stating that it would no longer fund the executive director's position for Bedford Main Street. That amounted to about $50,000 in salary and benefits that the city paid. Soon after learning that, Bedford Main Street Executive Director Linda Exley resigned and it has been without a director ever since. The city agreed to pay $10,000 to Bedford Main Street for the remainder of the fiscal year, through the end of June, but funding beyond that point had not been decided.

    As part of the budget process, Bedford Main Street requested $25,000 from the city in funding for the upcoming year, but at the same time the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce asked for that amount of money in an attempt to fold the Main Street program under the Chamber umbrella. That led to a dispute within council about where that money should go.

    Main Street officials had asked to be able to respond to the Chamber request, attending the second meeting in May, the same meeting a public hearing had been scheduled on the budget. City officials had expected that discussion to take place during the budget public hearing, but the Main Street officials believed there request was going to appear as a separate agenda item. The meeting ended without any discussion of the matter. The $25,000 budget item was approved in June by council, but how it would be distributed had not yet been determined.

    During a finance committee meeting Tuesday, council members had a spirited discussion on the issue and then during the regular meeting voted 4 – 2 to provide the funding for Main Street, amounting to just over $2,000 per month, for the next six months. Vice Mayor Bob Wandrei and council members Mary Flood, James Vest and Steve Rush voted in favor of the motion to provide the funding for six months. Mayor Skip Tharp and Councilman C.G. Stanley voted against the motion. Councilman Jeffrey Hubbard was not at the meeting.

    During the committee meeting, Wandrei said Bedford Main Street had been “cut at the knees” when the city stripped the organization of its funding. “It's discouraging,” he said. “We're six months too late in reaching a decision.”

    He later added that council did nothing to help Bedford Main Street, stating the organization “had to beg for $10,000 just to keep things going.”

    Wandrei said Bedford Main Street was hurt by not knowing if there would be any funding and has had to operate with volunteers. He said it's been hard to get people on board without knowing what the city was going to do, adding that the city had broken its contract with the organization by not hiring a new director. He said business owners had taken the attitude that if the city didn't care about helping support the program, why should they. As an example, he said that downtown merchants have been waiting for seven years for signs to be posted directing visitors to parking areas in Centertown.

    “Some would come back on (board) if they knew the city was behind them,” Wandrei stated about the Main Street program. He said with funding the board can look to hire someone to handle office duties and could then grow from there. “The city has a great deal at stake here,” he said, adding that council had to take some responsibility in how the issue has been handled.

    Main Street, which puts on Centerfest each September, is having a harder time finding corporate sponsorships for activities, Wandrei stated. He said the six-month funding will serve as seed money to the program and show those involved that council “wants to help the program and that it's important to you.”

    Councilman Rush said he had been told by some downtown merchants that they would be better served by setting up a merchants association. “The $25,000 can go somewhere else in the city coffers,” he said during the committee meeting. “We need to see some results.” Just prior to taking the vote in regular session, Rush stated he wanted to see a reorganization plan before he would vote for any funding, but he changed his mind and voted for the motion to provide six months of funding.

    Mayor Tharp suggested that the Main Street board should present a plan for reorganization “rather than appropriating funds with the existing issues at hand.” He said changes are going to have to be made, adding that “it's not going to be done under the current structure.”

    While some viewed the agreement as a probation period, Tharp had said during the finance committee meeting that the city “put them on probation last year and they didn't do anything.”

    Vest, who also said he favored seeing a plan first, but then voted in favor of the six-month funding plan, stated that he wished the discussion had taken place six months ago. “I don't want to see us lose the Main Street designation,” he added.