At noon on Saturday, Sept. 17, I strolled though the Roanoke City Market Building, which had reopened with fanfare two weeks earlier following $7.9 million worth of taxpayer-funded renovations.
Excepting three or four employees who stood behind the Allsports Cafe stand with hopeful expressions (“Look! A potential customer!”), the joint was as empty as a bar on a Sunday morning. Allsports was the only stand open.
Monday at lunchtime, I ventured down there again. And what a difference a couple of weeks and a First Amendment controversy makes.
Two stands were open, Allsports and Hong Kong Restaurant. There actually were small crowds of people at each.
And there were a couple dozen people sitting at the tables eating. It was probably the most customers in the place in more than a year.
For the most part, the ones I talked to shrugged off the mini-dustup regarding peaceful assembly on the sidewalk outside that building.
Carol Staton, of northwest Roanoke, and Michael Hunley, a downtown worker, said they’d prefer not to have to walk past demonstrators to get to their lunch spot.
Gerald Morris of Bedford said he didn’t care that much, so long as the demonstrators were nonviolent.
And Brian Cabaniss, who works downtown, wanted to talk about the renovation.
“It’s bland.” he said. “It’s sterile. It’s the most historic-looking building on the market, and it doesn’t look like they incorporated much that’s historical.”
Cabaniss was talking about inside the building, though the issue at hand was what happens outside.
Since 2005, peacenik members of Plowshare Peace & Justice Center have held regular vigils on the building’s Campbell Avenue sidewalk. Following the building’s reopening, members of the group sought to renew their permits for these one-hour-monthly silent demonstrations.
But the building and its sidewalks are no longer under the control of the city. Those now are the responsibility of the Market Building Foundation, a private not-for-profit group the city more or less created to take advantage of significant state and federal tax credits for historic renovations.
The city has leased the building and the sidewalk of still-mostly-empty market building to the foundation for 40 years.
The foundation’s board last month denied Plowshare’s request.
This means the foundation has to deny the request of anybody to conduct any kind of protest or vigil outside what is arguably the most public building in Roanoke.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved. Its lawyers are citing cases and making noises that they might sue on behalf of Plowshare.
Monday, the Market Building Foundation lawyer, Sam Darby, said he was still reviewing the ACLU’s arguments.
Stephen Lemon, a lawyer and a foundation volunteer board member, didn’t seem inclined to back down from the board’s decision. He repeatedly emphasized this has nothing at all to do with Plowshare or its message.
“We have to exercise our best business judgment as to what will increase the financial viability of our tenants,” Lemon said. He cited similar reasoning in arguing for why the Star Line trolleys shouldn’t linger outside the building.
“There are better spots to stop and idle a diesel engine,” Lemon said.
In other words, it’s nothing personal. It’s simply business.
Jim Deyerle, who works for Hall & Associates, the building’s leasing agent, said seven of the Market Building’s eight restaurant spaces have been leased, although only two are open.
Overall, 61 percent of the building’s commercial space is leased, he said. More restaurants will be open by the end of this month, Deyerle said.
So let me get this straight:
- The taxpayers spent about $8 million for a makeover that’s arguably underwhelming.
- The city ran off some of the building’s best tenants, such as Zorba and Burger in the Square and Tavern on the Market, none of which appear to be coming back.
- Three-fifths of the joint is leased. But only two places in the building are open a month after the opening.
- One interior vendor, the Dancing Chicken, has temporarily flown the coop because he can’t make a living inside there.
- And now the foundation may be on the threshhold of spending money to defend a federal case brought by the ACLU, an outfit that is well-schooled in the First Amendment.
Given its less-than-spectacular reopening, maybe the building needs a good lawsuit to put itself back in the public’s mind. That did wonders for the profile of Giles County High School.
People were eating at the Market Building on Monday, and that’s really what’s important.