Lukewarm reception for Fenwick trash

A proposal for a unified front against trash problems met a tepid response from members of the Fenwick Island business community at a Feb. 17 Community Liaison meeting.

Beautification Committee Chairwoman and Town Council Member Vicky Carmean, with committee member Joyce Chiconus, presented the committee’s seedling concept for the purchase of matching trash receptacles by businesses in the town. The concept came about as one possible method to address complaints that some of the town’s storefronts and their parking lots have become collection spots for refuse.

The proposal was aired before Community Liaison and Council Member Chris Clark (also owner of iLand Art Gallery), Southern Exposure’s Tim Collins, Reid Tingle of the Bank of Ocean City, John Dux of The Quail, Jack Childers of Seashell City and Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce representative Pamela McComas.

Carmean and Chiconus said the chief goal of their presentation was simply to get feedback from the business community, to gain a better understanding of whether such a proposal should be investigated further.

While the concept of improving the appearance of the town’s commercial areas met with support, the businesspeople voiced concern that support from their landlords and other neighboring businesses might be difficult to obtain.

Moreover, the idea of additional trash receptacles in front of the businesses was pointed to as a potential headache rather than a solution to the problem. “We need to do something,” Dux said, “but some people will throw away trash from their cars. … We don’t want diapers and McDonald’s bags filling these trash bins.”

Collins noted that the trash issue had previously been discussed among members of the business community. “All of us recognized it is a problem. It is discouraging,” he said, noting previous complaints about the unloading of trash into such front-located bins.

Those businesses who have consistently kept their areas clean, Carmean noted, often have owners or managers who send otherwise idle employees outside to clean the areas regularly and dump any existing trash bins into their larger commercial bins.

But beyond the accumulation of debris, Collins said, the appearance issue is one of general care of some of the town’s handful of shopping centers.

“Some landlords will tell their tenants to clean up, but they won’t do anything about the weeds growing up around the parking lot, which is the landlord’s responsibility,” he added.

The businesspeople said they feared requests from the town to landlords would simply result in additional fees charged to tenants for regular maintenance and clean-up of the problem areas, rather than real efforts at improvement.

Those present at the Feb. 17 meeting agreed that the best chance of community-wide cooperation in a commercial clean-up effort would be through an appeal to the tenant business owners themselves, who – in most cases — rely upon a positive appearance to draw and keep their customer base.

“The ones that will do it will succeed. It’s survival of the fittest,” Tingle said. But he objected to any notion of official regulation or enforcement through tightened ordinances. “If you try to regulate the landlords, it will push the area into residential development. What will get them to clean up is when it looks so bad the tenants leave,” he said grimly.

The town’s businesspeople — particularly those renting their locations — have increasingly discussed the notion that any increased regulation or additional fees on commercial properties will encourage those property owners to sell their lots for lucrative residential development. It could be a death knell for the town’s commercial areas, and is therefore an area of sensitivity in any discussion.

Rather than involving the property owners, as landlords, the group’s focus instead shifted to the financial interests of the tenant businesses.

“The future of business in Fenwick Island is in how the community looks,” Collins said, noting that he believed a request to the community of businesspeople would best be couched in terms of the town’s overall efforts at beautification, pointing to the planned median-beautification project, container gardening project, town hall landscaping efforts and community-wide contest for mailbox beautification.

The Beautification Committee’s Star Business Awards, entering into their second year, are designed to reward friendly, clean businesses that make efforts at pleasing décor, appearance and customer service.

Extending that effort was one root of the trash receptacle concept, but even the potential of matching funds from the town toward the purchase of the receptacles — at an average of $250 for a middle-grade bin — was not enough to bring overwhelming support from the businesspeople.

Clark noted that the ultimate goal for the town is to create a “cohesive look,” through efforts such as requesting businesses purchase the same style of trash bins for their customers’ use.

Collins agreed that the concept of that cohesion was one he supported, but said other basic elements of the problem really need to be addressed before such a step was seriously considered.

A general request for improved appearance to the landlords and their tenants could be a starting point, he said. “If we can get started, then we can move on to more.”

The issue of motivation was a key factor during the discussion, ranging from tentative suggestions of decreased business fees for those complying with a set of standards (rejected as a potential proverbial can of worms) to what basically amounted to peer pressure or guilt.

The latter concepts were the germination of a new idea that may well move forward into reality. Collins suggested that a group of concerned business owners could get together and “kick in” financially to hire a retiree or other part-time worker to weed town business locations and pick up errant bits of trash.

Once word gets around that a handful of businesspeople were contributing to efforts to keep others’ locations clean, Collins theorized, those remaining — including the worst of existing offenders — might be more willing to take part in overall efforts to keep the commercial areas tidy.

Clark noted that the Community Liaison budget could potentially help with the effort, perhaps providing matching funds to those supplied by the concerned business owners.

Tingle suggested the project could even be tackled as a community-service project, with an organized business clean-up effort that could work on a given block or section of the town at time.

McComas recommended those interested in such a project begin to contact business owners in given shopping centers who were known for their own efforts at tidiness, to help spread the word about the effort and increase pressure on the problem businesses to make their own efforts.

The discussion of the idea expanded into discussion of the planned “visioning” workshop for the town’s business community. Clark noted that Council Member Harry Haon has agreed to host such a workshop, to help the town plan for the long-term needs and desires of its business community. Three similar workshops for residential property owners were held in 2004.

Another part of the effort to involve more businesspeople in town affairs has been in surveys sent out with business license renewals. The questionnaires have sought to identify the town’s strengths and weaknesses as a business location, and a few items were regularly identified on both sides of that balance sheet.

Chief complaints related to the town’s restrictions on signage, as well as the shortage of parking. But the town was praised for its people and the prime locations that are being used for business, though their physical room for expansion is very limited.

Tingle noted that he believes, “The biggest obstacle in maintaining a commercial district is that the tenants have no say over the long term.” Unlike property owners (including commercial landlords) and residents, tenant business owners in Fenwick Island have no vote in town issues, only a limited ability to voice their concerns.

Clark seconded that, saying a common complaint from business owners was that they have no say; but he noted that feedback from those businesspeople is needed before anything can be changed. (There, he pointed to a recent request from restaurateur Gabby Mancini that the town accommodate alcohol service on an outside patio for waiting diners.)

McComas questioned which issues might be targeted as priorities for the Chamber of Commerce as relates to its dealings in Fenwick Island in the coming year, with agreement that signage issues should have top billing, along with taxes and trash.

“It would be a good first step to show businesses that the town is trying to help them,” she said of any efforts by the town to accommodate businesses on the signage issue.

That area of conflict could begin to be addressed as soon as the coming visioning workshop, which is still in the planning stages. Clark noted that he is seeking at least 30 participants from the town’s approximately 50 businesses, to make the workshop worthwhile. Scheduling has yet to be determined.

The workshop, Clark said, is designed to give the business owners “a say in where the town should go.” Concern about the issues of trash, taxes and signage — as well as other issues on the minds of Fenwick Island’s businesspeople — can be expected to be voiced early after the workshop begins.