Monday, September 16, 1996
Parking takes a back seat to Backstage

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You don't have to be Carl Lindner to know that the ticket to success in business is a satisfied customer.

The city of Cincinnati could do well to learn this lesson. It just might keep some small downtown stores alive.

For months, the key to dissatisfied customers and declining sales on the side of Walnut Street facing the Aronoff Center has been parking tickets.

''People park out front and run in to drop off their clothes. They're in here for five minutes, tops,'' says Peter Batsakes of J & G Batsakes Dry Cleaners. ''They come out and some cop's slapping a $36 parking ticket on their car.

''This happened six times last week. These tickets are killing me.

My drop-off business is down 15 to 20 percent.''

Down the block, tickets are causing indigestion at the Bagel Stop.

''Because of these tickets,'' says owner Paul Mazza, ''my drive-by customers rush in with the fear of God in their eyes.''

He notices their eyes darting from their sandwich to the street. They're looking to get their food fast while on the lookout for a cop. They yell ''Hurry up!'' Stress becomes a specialty of the house.

''We used to joke with our customers,'' he says. ''Now these tickets have turned something fun into something stressful.''

And, unprofitable.

Mr. Mazza has found that his drive-by business is just driving by. Carry-out orders are off 50 percent.

No parking, no business

Both merchants know their businesses have no-parking signs by their front doors.

''Hey, we're not stupid,'' Peter Batsakes says. ''We can read.''

They can see, too.

Across the street, the new kid on the block, the Aronoff Center, has a 10-minute loading zone right in front of its box office. Theatergoers use it to drop off passengers, buy tickets and spend money in downtown Cincinnati.

''We just want a little equal consideration,'' Mr. Batsakes says.

The city would like to give it to them.

''I wish we could make everybody happy,'' says Richard Schupp. As the city's principal traffic engineer, he knows Walnut Street.

''It's downtown's second-busiest street,'' he says. ''We might be able to turn a truck-loading zone on that side into a 10-minute drop-off zone. But it's just a trade-off. We want to make both sides of the street user-friendly without causing traffic jams.''

That's not too much to ask. Especially for two businesses that have been downtown for so long and have seen the fortunes of Walnut Street take such a roller-coaster ride.

While the Aronoff has been open for 11 months, the Bagel Stop has been serving food for seven years. The Batsakes family has been dry cleaning Cincinnatians' clothes for 89 years.

Peter Batsakes doesn't know whether his family business will be around to see 90.

''When my customers get a ticket, I give them $36 in free dry cleaning. That's 25 shirts or seven silk blouses. I can't afford to do that six times a week, every week, and still stay in business.''

Still waiting

Walnut Street's veteran merchants are a patient lot. When the Aronoff was being built, their street was torn up and business went down. They complained and were told: Business will be back, wait 'til the theater opens.

When their sidewalks were torn up and customers had to walk across boardwalks and plywood bridges to shop, they heard the refrain: Things will be better when the Aronoff's open.

When the neighborhood was dubbed the Backstage area and the Aronoff's opening was followed by a slew of fancy new restaurants, the same old promises were made.

''Our foot traffic has never recovered from when they started building the Aronoff,'' says Adele Gutterman. She's speaking in the Walnut Street Popcorn & Sweets shop she runs with her son, Hiram.

''Business is off 5 percent. Still. Even with the theater open, there are less people walking on this side of the street.''

They still might come back. All that's needed is one more sign from the city. This one has to say: Cincinnati wants everything done right . . . on both sides of Walnut Street.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.