To Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters, she’s the “downtown empress,” shepherding an ordinance, a festival, or a marketing program through a tight-knit enclave called the Special Business District, or SBD.
But to the duke of downtown, longtime merchant and Cool Stuff owner Arnie Fagan, SBD director Carrie Gartner has forfeited her crown, becoming “downtown’s Phyllis Chase,” an impresario of petty imperiousness.
“Carrie Gartner and Phyllis Chase, the former Columbia public school superintendent who resigned in disgrace last year, have remarkably similar leadership styles,” Fagan writes on his Downtown Blog at the Tribune’s website.
Citing secretive meetings, snide rejoinders and “attempts to marginalize opponents,”  Fagan has declared a war of words against Gartner after “approximately nine years of poor treatment” at her hands.
Where style points are concerned, I’m sympathetic. Gartner has busted my chops a time or two for things that seem small in retrospect.  But her impatience with me and the Fagan-Gartner conflict may reflect misdirected frustrations-with Columbia’s powers-that-be, who are pushing their own agendas in a way that is transforming “The District” into a battlefield.

Big Brother, Where Art Thou?
The barrage is suffocating: gang fights, surveillance cameras, an anti-graffiti ordinance and a sign ordinance; City Hall’s parking monopoly; CIDs; TIFs; Stan Kroenke’s dilapidated Osco block and threats of eminent domain; aggressive panhandlers and a big fat “probably not” to John Ott’s proposal to clean up and awaken downtown’s dirty, sleepy alleyways.
Add a struggling economy to this mix, and denizens of the District are crying “enough is enough.”
But instead of marching on City Hall, they tend to march on each other. A controversial proposal to merge two District groups-the SBD and Central Columbia Association (CCA)-into a so-called “community improvement district,” or CID, prompted Fagan to blog about a recent example.
“Last autumn, a longtime merchant/building owner…walked into The District office and vehemently told Carrie Gartner…that she is categorically opposed to the CID and the subsequent sales tax on her customers,” he wrote.
Gartner ignored the woman, Fagan said, pandering to board leadership. “Their goal was to combine the organizations…which could then pass a downtown sales tax that would double the bureaucracy’s income.”

Busted in the District
In a “Downtown Parking Update” Gartner sent to District business owners, she asked “Why are you making it tough for your customers by letting your employees take up all the parking spots?  Why be a jerk? You need to remove every possible obstacle to your customers and keep those metered spots clear.  Set an example by parking in a garage.”
Spotting what he called “offensive hypocrisy,” Fagan photographed Gartner’s car parked-and even ticketed-in several metered downtown spots.
On his blog, Fagan asked, “Why did Carrie Gartner park her car in front of Bleu Restaurant and Bangkok Gardens, monopolizing customers’ spaces?  As recently as March 23, 2009-just one week before she sent out the parking update-she parked on the street again, this time in front of Lakota Coffee, during business hours.”
Quoting the SBD personnel manual, Fagan called on Gartner to resign.  “It is the policy of the SBD that employees not park on the street during office hours.  Third offense: employee is terminated.”
KOMU-TV picked up the story, a public relations disaster for not only the Special Business District, but also for their laudable efforts to keep downtown alive.

Burgeoning Bohemian
It’s hard to argue that Arnie Fagan and Carrie Gartner have made substantial contributions to the health and well-being of downtown Columbia. To many, it’s even harder to see them at odds.
Cool Stuff is a District legend, with generations of Columbians remembering Fagan’s Broadway store as their first encounter with our little Midwestern burg’s burgeoning bohemian side. The ironies don’t get much better when you consider that Gartner has ramped up the very shopping experience Fagan introduced: places to buy cool stuff in a hip environment you can’t get at the mall.
After buying a row of rundown metal warehouses once derisively known as the “Diaper Factory,” engineer Mark Timberlake approached Gartner for her contemporary vision.
It was Gartner who suggested he attempt something many have failed to do: convert a warehouse into studio space for local artists, according to reports in CBT and the Tribune.
It was also Gartner who oversaw the tumbling of downtown’s concrete canopies, and stood up to County Hall when a plan to close Seventh Street for a “Boone County Government Center” addled her constituents.
It was Fagan who protested banks-only downtown parking.
And it is Fagan who is challenging a proposed anti-graffiti ordinance that may unfairly penalize business owners for miscreant misdeeds.
What’s gone wrong between these two District boosters may mirror what’s going wrong with the downtown environment.  Heavy-handed forces squeeze the District with an ever-expanding series of win-lose propositions.  Gartner fights battles for the winning side, and Fagan is fighting battle fatigue.
“I look forward to the day when the SBD is once again run in a friendly, open, honest and transparent manner,” he blogs.  “It will be a refreshing change from the secretive, exclusionary, mean-spirited, back-room way The District has been run the last few years.”
City Hall, County Hall, Columbia School Board, State Historical Society-you could all take a lesson here, too.

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