Innovation? Hell, let’s just steal ideas

The late Steve Jobs is often touted as one of the great innovators of the age, but his real genius was in taking ideas from others, tweaking them, and selling them.

Jobs didn’t invent the computer mouse, smart phone or the MP3 player, for example; others came up with those ideas, but his tweaks changed everything.

Taking cues from Steve Jobs, the City of New Bern has gone into he business of taking others ideas, as well.

For example, take the Farmer’s Market.

For $1 per year, the Farmers Market was leasing city-owned land at South Front and Hancock streets coveted by developers. Everyone was happy, the Farmers Market thrived, and neighboring businesses enjoyed the extra foot traffic Farmer’s Market attracted.

Meanwhile, the city was saddled with a blighted piece of property off First Street zoned for heavy commercial use that it will never be able to sell because of decades of accumulated pollutants from the power plant that once stood there.

On a tear to unload surplus property, here was one property the city could not unload, so it sought alternatives.

City officials thought they could kill two birds with one stone. They approached Farmers Market leaders about moving to the First Street power plant property, a concept called City Market. Moving Farmer’s Market would free up city-owned land it could sell, and put to use city-owned property the city could not sell.

Farmers Market board members didn’t like the idea. They are doing well where they are and the rent they paid to the city for the property was almost nothing. Also, the present location brings in casual visitors who are downtown for other reasons.

Downtown businesses didn’t like the idea, either. They see Farmers Market as an additional attraction that fills restaurants and shops with customers on mornings when the Farmers Market is open.

At the moment, almost nobody goes to the old power plant, and other than Lawson Creek Park across the road, there is nothing else for people to do in that section of town.

It started to get ugly, as things often do when one opposes City Hall. There were veiled threats of eviction countered by a petition that gathered 15,400 signatures from people opposed to the Farmer’s Market moving.

At some point city officials realized that the Farmer’s Market had an ace up its sleeve: Although its lease with the city was about to expire, it had the option to extend it for one more year. That would have put the city in the awkward position of evicting a beloved downtown institution right in time for the 2017 municipal elections.

The city backed off. Rather than let a squabble with Farmers Market and downtown merchants drive the 2017 municipal elections, the city was forced into another lease. This time, however, it increased the rent from $1 a year to $500 per month.

The idea seemed to wither away. There was no further public discussion about outdoor vendor sales at the old power plant property. But meanwhile, city officials worked out a deal for Craven Community College to use the First Street main building for vocational classes, calling it the Volt Center (a nod to the building’s past as an electric plant).

Then on Feb. 13, the City Market plan sprang forth once more. The city is now seeking grant funding to help pay for outdoor vending areas, a market, a commercial kitchen accelerator, and an inventor’s space.

As city director of Development Services Jeff Ruggieri said, the idea never went away. But now, rather than forcing the Farmer’s Market to move, the city now looks poised to go in head-to-head competition with the Farmer’s Market.

It’s an odd thing, the city trying to compete with an existing commercial operation. Alderman Jeffrey Odham has said he wanted to run the city more like a business, but this? Start a business? One that competes with existing businesses?

And it’s not the only one.

In January, a private artists group approached the city seeking approval to rent the old Firemen’s Museum on Hancock Street.

A little background on that: after he became mayor, Dana Outlaw began a push to unload as much surplus city property as possible. The Hancock Street museum property was on the list, and the city gave the bum’s rush to the Firemen’s Museum, forcing it to rush fundraising efforts to pay for renovations of the old Broad Street Fire House so the museum could move there.

Outlaw and city staff envisioned selling the old museum site on Hancock Street, but when bids came in, they didn’t meet minimum requirements. The building is a fairly large commercial space suitable for a restaurant or even a microbrewery, but there’s a problem: it has no parking.

True, there’s a city-owned parking lot right next to it, but the downtown parking plan calls for the city to reduce the number of leased spaces, not increase the number. And the city parking lot at New and Hancock streets is a pretty important component to the city’s master parking plan.

So, like the old power plant on First Street, the city found itself with a substantial piece of real estate that is virtually unsellable.

It makes one wonder whether city officials do any research into these things before jumping in.

Back to the artists’ group. It had lost its existing location and was basically homeless and in a bind. They thought that perhaps they could rent the Hancock Street property from the city for, say, $500 a month — the same thing Farmer’s Market was paying for its piece of prime real estate.

Good idea, Mayor Outlaw said. More research is needed. Could be the city would pay them, rather than the other way around.

But that’s not how it turned out.

Meetings were held and the city came back with a plan: The city Parks and Recreation Department would open up its own art gallery and artist space at the old Firemen’s Museum — and make money doing it.

That private artists group? Still homeless, although they are welcome to apply to use the city-owned, city-run artists gallery along with everyone else.

So, yeah, those are two examples of the city shouldering its way into areas previously the domain of private groups.

A little bit sneaky, a little big underhanded. But unlike Steve Jobs, who bought or stole proven, successful ideas and made them better, the city still has to prove whether it is any good at running an outdoor market and an artists gallery, both of which have existing and entrenched competition in the city.

But, paraphrasing a line from Steve Jobs when he would announce new products, in the sneaky, underhanded department, that’s not all.

More on that here.

March 6th, 2018 by
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