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Michael Penny put a sign up in the window of his club the other day. It says, No streetlights, no sidewalks for over 20 weeks and no end in sight. FIX THIS! The irresponsible pace of this project is severely impacting my ability to maintain this hard fought for, vital and pioneering downtown business. Enough! Downtown businesses deserve better from our city.
Ringside, a deeply funky, four-story rock venue and bar on West Main Street, one block from the Durham Arts Council, was one of the first live music venues in the area when it opened in 2000. Rock shows, hip hop, dance nights, film screenings, Halloween parties, it all happens in the labyrinthine club, where you can see a show on the first floor and kick back with a book in the library-like fourth floor. Its the kind of place you take your friends from New York to boast about the areas avant nightlife.
But six months ago, a construction crew tore up the sidewalk in front of Pennys club. Since then, he says, revenue has dropped by two-thirds and even the best promoted shows draw only a handful of people. Its killing me, he says. I dont know if Im going to be able to last through the summer.
Penny says his is the only business he knows about thats been without a sidewalk since construction began. The conversion of downtowns one-way streets to two-way and the widening of its sidewalks is part of a plan to make downtown more appealing to businesses and pedestrians. Penny says its irresponsible of the city not to give contractors clear guidelines to minimize the impact on existing businesses, and its going to kill off the downtown culture before it even gets started.
Ive been fighting that Durhamophobia since Ive been in business, Penny says. Its an irrational fear of downtown Durham. But now theres no streetlights! My place is on a pitch-black street with nowhere to park and barrels out front. I dont blame people for not wanting to come.
Ringside pioneered an otherwise dead area of downtown, and its success has helped other live music venues and restaurants that have sprung up downtown, including Joe & Jos and the Blayloc Cafe. Talk of the Town, another live venue that was an early adopter, is a short walk down the street.
To my knowledge, my office has not received a call from him, says Alan DeLisle, director of Durhams Office of Economic and Employment Development. We were informed in the past 24 hours about the sign, and Ill be glad to check with Public Works about the progress in that location. In general, DeLisle says, I think the city has done a great job of managing the project. Its on time, and I think the city has overall tried to be very responsive to the disruptions and work with the businesses. That said, I can certainly sympathize. Im sure some businesses are frustrated.
Penny says he put up a sign because he didnt know any other way to get the city to take notice. They seem to be utterly indifferent, he says. Ill pass by a city council person on the street and say, This is killing me. And I talk to people from [Downtown Durham Inc.] and they always have this very understanding face on. They say, Just be patient, its going to be wonderful. Well, Im sure its going to be wonderful. But I dont know if Ill be around to see it.