Walnut Street Business Owners Clarify Prior Claims and Concerns at City Council Meeting

9 Oct

For the second Morgantown City Council meeting in a row, Walnut Street business owners voiced concerns and complaints about undesirable behavior near their store fronts, believed to be related to the presence of Friendship House — a shelter and resource center operated by Milan Puskar Health Right.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, Gary Tannenbaum of Blue Moose Café, Jillian Kelly of Retrotique, Stephanie Swain of Hoot and Howl and other Walnut Street business owners delivered a series fiery exposés about violence, drug use and other crime, which they largely blamed on the nearby Friendship House.

Tannenbaum described the shelter as creating an “epicenter” for unwanted activities on the street, saying that the helpful resources available “create an attraction” for drug users. Kelly said she is frequently sexually harassed, intimidated and threatened on Walnut Street and that she and her customers “don’t feel safe.” Caitlin Sussman, the Program director of Friendship House spoke about the facility’s vital services and urged attendees and the council to view this as a “we-issue” and not just a Health Right issue.

At the Oct 1. meeting, Sussman appeared again, reiterating her desire for tolerance and teamwork. The owners of Dirty Bird and the former restaurant Lefty’s Place offered new grievances about past crimes committed near their Walnut Street businesses. Amel Morris, owner of Lefty’s Place, said the increase in “loitering” was a “direct result of Friendship House moving in.”

Additionally, representatives of businesses that spoke at the Sept. 17 meeting returned to do what I would consider damage control regarding the images of their establishments. This is where things became interesting, and it’s also where I was glad to have attended the prior meeting, allowing me to detect a strong shift in language from the initial comments.

Between this meeting and the last, rhetoric and rumor developed that claimed all of the business owners had called for Friendship House to be shut down, penalized or sanctioned under the city’s public nuisance code. And to be fair, several of them did allude to these “solutions” at both meetings.

Tannenbaum of Blue Moose called for the application of Article 1149 pertaining to public nuisances at the September meeting, and Morris of Lefty’s Place did the same on Oct. 1.

Blake Campbell, a Retrotique employee, said, “by the way – the majority of people don’t want to shut down Friendship House, and I’m very confused by the [assumption] that we’re putting down homeless people or that we want to see the the Friendship House close.”

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“There seems to be a vilification of the downtown business owners who are talking about this [issue],” Campbell said.

In a series of post-public portion comments, West Virginia State Delegate, Danielle Walker, stressed her disappointment and concern regarding the way people had spoken about homelessness and diversity as a whole.

“We are neighbors. Community means unity. Whether we are a neighbor that doesn’t have a roof over or head, or whether we are a neighbor that is fighting addiction… we are still neighbors,” said Walker.

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