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Parking (porking) at Grand Center.

A bout 50 years ago, when construction plans were being made for a more comfortable, better designed and less expensive downtown Busch Stadium than the one we have today, we learned that the last remaining burlesque house in the city, Harry Wald's memorable Grand Theatre, was to be demolished as part of the stadium footprint. I wrote at the time that St. Louis had decided that night baseball was more important than sex.

Today, as a result of a money grab by Vince Schoemehl and his fellow arts lovers on the board of Grand Center, and a lack of courageous response by Mayor Francis Slay, a group of our city's most powerful citizens has obviously decided that night baseball is more important than theater, music, dance and other forms of cultural entertainment.

In these parlous times, when communities are in the same tight financial bind as their citizens, it's easy to understand that more income, from more sources, is needed desperately. Grand Center found some by jiggering the parking meters in the immediate area. They must now be fed until 10 p.m., with additional police on duty to issue tickets, and while Schoemehl and his pals in the money-machine game talk about four-hour meters, those are a pretty good hike. All the closer-to-performance-space meters have a 90-minute maximum, and no way for a theater-goer to sit through an entire show. Grand Center has spoken of leaving parking space for folks going to dinner, but remember that only one Grand Center site is a destination restaurant; others are designed for speedy meals before, or dessert after, a performance.

This sounds like a time for some civil disobedience. If 50, or even just a few dozen people suddenly got up during a performance at the Fox, Grandel, Powell Hall or a smaller venue, and exited, bothering everyone in the row and even jingling some change in their pockets, and returned five or 10 minutes later, repeating the bother, think of the furor among the audience, not to mention among the actors or dancers or musicians trying to perform .... and you don't have to actually need to feed a meter to cooperate. It's not breaking any laws, but be careful not to jay-walk.

Oh, what does Mayor Slay have to do with it? Well, a couple of years ago, the mayor spoke at a theater awards ceremony and proclaimed how his administration was in favor of the arts, loved the arts and would do everything in its power to help the arts. And the mayor does deserve some credit; he apparently has been working, albeit slowly, on the Ed Golterman project, a valiant effort to re-open Kiel Opera House, a generation or so since it closed. But in terms of the city budget, there might be some extra revenue available at the downtown parking meters while the Cardinals or the Blues are playing. And what about the meters around St. Louis U's Chaifetz Arena? After all, a precedent has been established.... just grab from the people and ignore the media.

Schoemehl and his buddies have handled the media well. They made the announcement about the change in parking rules, then handed prepared statements to reporters who sought comment. The former mayor avoided talking to anyone in the media, and so did the current mayor, and after a while the media stopped writing about the cash grab in Grand Center for its parking lots, and for those operated by its pals. Otherwise, it would look as if the media was just being repetitious.

Matthew Hathaway, a fine reporter, did an excellent article about the parking meter shenanigans in the Post-Dispatch. Hathaway pointed out that about 1800 meters were changed, but the 400 closest to the various venues were of the 90-minute variety. The change would add about $200,000 a year to the Grand Center coffers, through an arrangement whereby three-fourths of extra meter money goes to a Grand Center subsidiary. And, of course, Grand Center owns a half-dozen of the lots in the immediate area, and organizations whose leaders sit on the 29-member Grand Center Board have interests in as many more. Grand Center's lots have earned about $160,000 annually the last few years. Schoemehl's salary is in the quarter-million dollar range, not much for an athlete, but pretty good for an executive at a non-profit.

Bloggers at Stltoday responded with 60-some messages, 80-90 percent accusing Grand Center of greed and vowing never to return except on Sunday. I'm surprised the Greed Center--oops, Grand Center--overlooked that, but it's probably the next fee-parking tactic that Grand Center will consider.

The Grand Center folks responded with an op-ed piece by Mark Miller, identified as a member of the Grand Center board of directors. He noted that he is a volunteer and then said he is chairman of the Parking Strategy Committee, undoubtedly qualified because he's an executive retired from Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Miller wrote about parking for restaurants, strictly a diversionary tactic. In many years of writing about restaurants and theater, I've learned they don't really mix. People go to the theatre to be entertained; they go to restaurants to eat. A big meal is not conducive to enjoying the performance. It's too easy to fall asleep, and while falling asleep is its own form of criticism, there's no need to make it easier because of a full stomach. And celebratory dinners, or dinners that have seduction in mind, take more than 90 minutes. In addition, I think there's only one (it hopes) destination restaurant in Grand Center, the Kota Grill. The new City Diner may become a post-theater destination, but it's for a quick meal like those offered at the Best Steak House, or Vito's, or NaDoz. Restaurants with hopes of becoming destination spots, or with gourmet dining aims, have found Grand Center infertile ground. People in search of elegant dining go to the Hill, or Clayton, or the Central West End, or Downtown, all areas where theaters are rare.

Miller also wrote about visitors who come to Grand Center to be entertained, "and then rush to their cars to leave those magical experiences quickly behind." Several bloggers complained about the waiting time to get out of parking lots.

Well, why doesn't Grand Center, or its entrepreneurs, think about promoting bars and restaurants to post-theater customers, whether with a late-night snack menu, ice-cream specialties or even a little entertainment, like a piano player or a jazz trio? By the time they finish, the parking-lot traffic will have cleared.

In this regard, I refuse to entertain comments from people who say they must get up early the next morning to go to the gym. Exercise the mind instead of the body a couple of days a week. Convince the children to nap before the theater, or to just lie down and relax for an hour or so. When I was a boy (sorry to use the phrase), my parents took me to Broadway theater or to a concert about once a month on a school night, even though curtains rose at 8:40. We took the subway, and after the play we would stop for an ice-cream soda or a snack at Schrafft's or Toffinetti's in Times Square. They're some of my fondest childhood memories.

The Grand Center money-grab will not affect the Fox or the St. Louis Symphony very much. People who spent upward of $60 for a ticket can handle the $8 parking-lot tariff. The body blow is to the small theater groups or cabaret performers whose staffs work at the Centene Building and who perform at the Kranzberg Arts Center. They often depend on volunteers who now will have to pay more than the quarter or two it used to cost early-arrivals and the people who do not have the retirement benefits of the 29 Grand Center board members.

Performers need parking spaces when they rehearse, and they don't make much money (if they make any at all). Neither do ushers and ticket takers and concession-stand workers, and that holds true for the Fox and Powell Hall and the Grandel Theatre as well. And, of course, these people are on hand for an entire run, not just the single performance that ticket-buyers attend.

I thought about calling Schoemehl, but since he refused to talk to anyone in the media, and I still consider myself part of it, I figured I did not need the aggravation of a snub.
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Title Annotation:Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri
Author:Pollack, Joe
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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