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Council postpones decision on Bat Fest bridge closure

Friday, August 8, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The Austin City Council has postponed a vote on granting street closure permit for the Bat Fest until Aug. 21. Organizers of the festival want the Council to waive the rules requiring 90 percent of affected property owners to approve the closure of the Congress Avenue Bridge for their event August 30 and 31.


Organizers of the festival, which benefits Bat Conservation International, say they have had difficulty satisfying the demands of a handful of businesses that would be affected by the closure of the bridge, including a furniture store at Congress and Barton Springs Road named Your Living Room. While the first two years of the festival had gone smoothly, Your Living Room co-owner G.G. Cordiero told the Council that conditions had deteriorated in the past two years.


“Our customers were complaining that they could not get to our store,” she said. “Our business was horribly affected. We project and buy a lot of advertising for Labor Day weekend because it is a big retail weekend. We went from doing $20,000 to $30,000 to $5,000 on Saturday and zero on Sunday. It was very hard for us.”


Cordiero and several other affected business owners, including Sherry Matthews of Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing, retained attorney Isabelle Antongiorgi to help make their case before the Council.


“This signature requirement is really designed to give citizens a say in when and why the streets in front of their homes and businesses are closed,” she said. “It forces event promoters to take into consideration…and plan and organize, taking seriously their interests. It protects small business owners from the adverse effects that are sometimes associated with these festivals: economic harm, property damage, pollution, congestion. These particular citizens have objected because they have suffered property damage as well as extensive economic harm.”


Bat Fest organizers urged the Council to consider the benefits the festival provided to the community, such as attracting tourists to downtown Austin and educating children about the large bat colony under the Congress Avenue Bridge. They cited Your Furniture Store as the only business that suffered a serious impact from the festival.


“We offered her $4,000 cash. She didn’t have to sell anything to get that money,” said French Smith with Road Star Productions. “We think that she probably does generate business after the festival. If somebody does come to the event, they may not buy a couch that day…but they’re going to come back at some point because they looked in her window and liked her furnishings.”


But Smith said those discussions had not proven to be fruitful. “We have a festival where it seems like it’s almost impossible to accommodate the business that opposes it and still have the festival,” he told In Fact Daily. “We’ve done things like create better access and address her concerns as best we could…other than not have the event. Of course, we want to have the event.”


The Council will consider the request for a variance to the street closure rules in two weeks, just a few days before Bat Fest. If the Council rejects the request, Smith said, “that probably leaves us in a situation where we would have to cancel the festival at the very last minute. We wouldn’t be able to move the event. It would be too little time.”


Some members of the Council expressed concern that the organizers were seeking a variance to the street closure rules, since some of the same businesses had raised the same complaints last year. “I was not here last year, but I did take the time to read the transcript,” said Council Member Randi Shade. “We’re looking at one business that’s in the business to do events and another business that’s in business to sell furniture. From my perspective that the decision is one group of businesses versus another group of businesses…and following the rules that are currently in place, not about voting against bat conservation.”


Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who was on the Council when the issue was raised last year, said he was frustrated that the issue was back before them. “The clear understanding among some of us up here on the dais was that we were going to do this last year, but that we had to look for a different way to do it. At the same time, to shut down the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge for two full days on a holiday weekend is just something that I find very hard in my mind to justify for almost any event,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to support the waiver either, regrettably, because I do support the cause which it ultimately purports to serve.”


Some Council Members publicly expressed their support for a waiver, including Council Member Laura Morrison and Council Member Sheryl Cole.


“I look at this issue more from an entire city perspective,” said Cole “In a year of budget constraints where the only bright spot on the horizon was our tourism industry, I don’t think that we can afford to deny any festival event because we can’t work out a few issues with one particular land owner,” she said. “My office and Council Member Morrison’s office will bring back to Council something that shows we have made a good faith effort to accommodate the land owners that are concerned about the Bat Festival.”


Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken expressed his support by adding his name to that of Cole and Morrison in putting forth the waiver.


Mayor Will Wynn said he was worried about visitors who were coming to town to attend the opening game of the University of Texas football season, indicating that he would not support the waiver. That made Council Member Mike Martinez the swing vote. If the parties cannot reach a compromise by Aug. 21, he will likely still be in that position.

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