A-Tax meeting turns into a near donnybrook

Keith Loner of Blythewood and his daughter, Ashley York, take time out from shopping a previous Big Grab in downtown Blythewood to rest on a sale couch set along Highway 21. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – When two separate applicants appeared before the Town government’s Accommodation Tax (A-Tax) committee last week to vie for $10,000 the town council has allocated for someone to manage this year’s Big Grab yard sale, the tense, hour-long meeting erupted into a shouting match between the two applicants and their supporters until frustrated committee member Ken Shettles called a halt to the ruckus with a motion to recommend that council reduce its allocation for the event to $5,000 and also make the decision as to which group will be awarded the money.

History of the Big Grab, presented at A-Tax meeting

The two applicants, Mike Switzer, Executive Director of the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce and Theresa McKendrick, owner of Postmarked 29016, a gift shop on McNulty Road, each made a case as to why he/she should be awarded the $10,000.

One committee member described the tug of war as a battle for the money.

“Oh, no,” Switzer said. “It’s not a battle at all. We’re totally fine if this group of volunteers would like to take it over.”

“So you’re withdrawing? Is that what you’re saying?” Shettles asked.

“No, that’s up to the committee,” Switzer said, but reminded the committee that this would be the chamber’s third year to oversee the Big Grab if awarded the money.

According to the chamber’s records, it made a profit from last year’s Big Grab, but how much is not clear. The Chamber did not turned over to the A-Tax committee a detailed listing of vendor fees and sponsorship sales for last year’s Big Grab, just a total number for each. One report showed a total Big Grab profit of $1,432.77, while other numbers indicated a possible profit of as much as $6,144.88.

The A-tax applications submitted by Switzer and McKendrick were similar.

Switzer’s application called for Big Grab to continue as a megasite in Doko Park as it did last year under the chamber’s direction. He listed project costs for the September, 2018 event at $10,000 but the revenue and expenses sections of the application each add up to $14,500, not $10,000.

Total revenue sources include $10,000 (A-tax funds), $3000 (sponsorships) and $1,500 (food and vendor sales). A proposed total of $14,500 in expenditures includes $2,240 (park rental for 28 hours), $2,560 (Sheriff’s Deputies), $800 (portable restrooms and trash bins) $500 (misc. supplies), $400 (ROTC), $5,000 (payments to chamber and visitor center staff) and $3,000 (advertising/marketing).

While McKendrick likened the Chamber’s Big Grab in the park to a flea market atmosphere, she, too, proposed locating vendors in the park but also in the town center.

McKendrick’s revenue sources mirrored Switzer’s at $14,500, but her proposed expenditures of $15,000 included up to $3,000 (park rental), up to $4,000 (municipal and county resources), up to $4,000 (administrative/event planner) and $4000 (marketing/promotions).

McKendrick justified payments of up to $4,000 for her staff as covering an event planner and “other support staff. If we have to hire day-of-event staff, then we would have that money available. We hope to hire a social media person and may have to pay to play if we hire social media influencers. We would pay them to post,” she explained.

While McKendrick said she was speaking on behalf of the owners of the town’s consignment stores, Bits and Pieces and Blythewood Consignment, neither of the stores’ owners were happy with Switzer’s or McKendrick’s proposals.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” Liz Humphries, owner of Blythewood Consignment said. “This is about a big yard sale, a glorified selling of junk. I don’t think we need to spend all this money. I think we all need to get together and volunteer for our community.”

Joe Benini, co-owner of Bits and Pieces agreed.

“The first Big Grab was awesome and easy,” Benini said. “Then the chamber took over and the next thing I know, it’s now a $15,000 budget, for what? My wife and I had to pay $50 just to be a sponsor. I paid for all my stuff, posters, etc. and posted the map that was in The Voice on our door,” he said.

“Let the local people make the money,” Humphries said. “The Big Grab started as a way to get people in to our brick and mortar [stores]. The park has nothing to do with my store except that it’s a huge competition. My sales dropped in half last year because everyone was at the park. I’m just here to protect my business,” Humphries said. “I’m all about people selling their junk. But I don’t think people should get paid to do this. If you love Blythewood, you need to volunteer and not expect to get paid.”

Susan DeMarco, who owns Sweet Pea’s Ice Cream Parlor, is a member of the Chamber and sits on the A-tax committee, agreed.

“We can tag each other on Facebook and say, ‘We’re all merchants in Blythewood and we’re all excited about the Big Grab.’ It’s going to happen no matter what we decide today. It’s on. It’s on. What you put in to it is what you get out of it,” DeMarco said. “If we spend a bunch of money, we aren’t changing the Big Grab. All we’re doing is having a power struggle between two parties.”

“We thought we were doing a good job,” Switzer said, defending the chamber’s management of the Big Grab. “We reached out to all the merchants. We thought we were working out solutions to try to help them because we’re all about businesses succeeding and thriving in this community. As for as being paid to run the event, we cover that cost with sponsorships and vendor fees.”

“But you’re still holding it in the park,” said Gail Banks, a vendor at Blythewood Consignment. ”You’re not getting it.”

“And last year the park looked like a disaster relief area,” committee member Kris White said.

“No matter what we do today, we aren’t going to come to a conclusion,” Shettles said. “Our committee only makes recommendations to council, and these arguments need to be in front of council. We could go on here for hours.”

With Shettle’s motion on the table, DeMarco offered a second motion recommending that no organizer would get any money for the event, but that the town would foot the bills for hard expenses like sheriff’s deputies, trash receptacles, portable restrooms, etc.

“People have to stop asking the merchants for sponsorships,” DeMarco said. “I don’t want to give A-tax money to someone to run the event and who then comes to ask me for more money to sponsor it.”

The committee voted 3-0, with DeMarco abstaining, to pass Shettle’s motion.

The Big Grab 50-mile community yard sale is set for Friday and Saturday, September 7 and 8, and will include Blythewood, Ridgeway and Winnsboro.