Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: Someone get the muzzle, because Roger's spreading myths about bridge tolls again.

(At times, it isn't entirely about beer, but it's enough about beer to reprint here as Wednesday Weekly. I write today as a private citizen, blogger and business owner, perhaps not in that order, but decidedly not as a community organizer or a member of the Brewers of Indiana Guild. I wouldn’t want to get in trouble or anything, like back in elementary school when you just knew one of them was going to snitch on you, but you didn’t know which one would do it. Note that a version of this essay likely will be submitted as next week’s Tribune column, although I can’t decide whether to edit the facts or the vitriol for readers who won’t be able to tell the difference between them.)

I’ll begin with an earnest confession.

In all seriousness, I’m neither the best nor the worst small business owner on the planet.

I have my moments, but overall, my ranking probably falls somewhere in the middle, and justifiably so. Teaching, selling and living good beer are the aspects of my work that I love the most, and other “minor” details sometimes elude me. So be it. The NABC ownership troika tends to work because in most cases, each of us has a particular strength that balances weaknesses in the others.

After just shy of two decades spent in my current line of work, it is my observation that few matters are black and white. However, one periodically experiences pristine clarity, and I can state with certainty that the following propositions surely are applicable.

1. While never foregoing an opportunity to market and to educate consumers in our own Southern Indiana backyards, NABC’s intended mandate as a small, niche-oriented destination business always has implied a sharp focus on marketing to the huge numbers of potential customers living in Kentucky.

2. Basic demographics justify this approach. For reasons that extend beyond price, better beer is a “higher end” product. Based on population alone, more members of the target demographic – higher income, better education, more extensive travel and life experience – live in Kentucky than Indiana. These people live in Indiana, too. It’s just that greater numbers of them live in Kentucky. In larger or smaller measure, it is reasonable to posit that the same is true for other small businesses in Southern Indiana.

3. Marketing to the Kentucky demographic has never been very easy, not because these nearby consumers misunderstand the message, but primarily owing to ancestral assumptions and clannish prejudices of the sort that people who don’t live along liquid borders cannot ever truly understand. Those who are not engaged on a daily basis in bricks and mortar retailing might dismiss these intangibles as merely apocryphal, but they’re far from imaginary to those who actually occupy the retailing trenches on a day to day basis.

4. Consequently, and precisely because I’ve been doing my job for as long as I have, I believe I’ve compiled sufficient accumulated knowledge about NABC’s consumer base to know that much of it comes from Kentucky. I am vindicated by this knowledge. It is gratifying to know that a plan of action patiently pursued over a long period of years has been proven worthy, and has come to fruition in such a fashion.

5. Whether proposed tolls on existing Ohio River bridges amount to a quarter or $3 each way, the amount absolutely will constitute an increase in the price of Hoosier goods and services for Kentuckians who must drive across toll bridges to the Indiana side. Unlike Hoosiers crossing the river to Kentucky to work, who’ll have no choice except to pay, this increase on the price of goods and services will be entirely discretionary, in the sense that Kentuckians can choose to forego the trip, refrain from crossing the bridge, stay at home, and spend their discretionary income in Kentucky.

6. Because of my experience as a small business owner and operator, as carefully explained in the preceding, I can see quite clearly that tolling existing bridges is going hurt my business, and dearly. Furthermore, it is reasonable to posit that the mere mention of tolling as an option will have a measurable influence on consumer behavior, one also detrimental to my business. Moreover, it is reasonable to posit that if it hurts my business, it will hurt others in my approximate market position just as badly.

7. If all this weren’t serious, it would be hilarious.

I’ve done exactly what the experts at organizations like 1Si demand a businessman do, gathering information, planning strategies, and over time, seeing these strategies succeed.

Now, with a stock of relevant information, knowledge and experience that is pertinent to an important matter in the public interest, there has arisen a segment of the community intent either to ignore me outright, or to insist loud and long that what I’ve learned isn’t true – that the public always should trust business persons to know what’s good for them, but only until Roger opens his big mouth, at which point we can scoff at him for hidden agendas and Communist leanings, and delete him if necessary.

To put it mildly, it strikes me as ironic that ever since I began raising these objections about how tolls will impact small retail businesses in Southern Indiana, people who are not in bricks and mortar retail sales … people who have not spent two decades marketing their businesses as destinations for a customer base living in Kentucky … people who are not in small retail business at all, and never have been … roll their eyes and look at the clouds whenever I suggest that maybe, just maybe, small business owners in Southern Indiana might actually know what’s good and bad for them in terms of bridge tolls, and because these owners and operators know the score, they can see that there can be no good for small businesses to come from tolling existing bridges.

People just like Jerry Finn, Horseshoe Foundation head and Bridges Authority member, an otherwise nice and jovial fellow, who two days ago implied that my viewpoint about tolling is a myth and needs to be debunked.

That brand of Bridges Authority Kool-Aid is powerful stuff, indeed.

In other words, a man who has no idea what it’s like to run my business, and who is in no way responsible for attracting a pre-chosen demographic to come and spend money at his retail establishment, since he does not have one, is bizarrely compelled to shrug, to posture, and to dismiss my concerns about the impact of tolling on the discretionary spending habits of Kentuckians, observations gathered over a period of twenty years, these twenty years spent accumulating evidence of consumer behavior gleaned every single day when the “open” sign went on.

That’s doubly laughable because in 2009, when NABC became the first local company to avail itself of the $50,000 Horseshoe Foundation revolving loan, we were approved by the Foundation’s dubious partner in outsourcing applications, no doubt in part because of our inspiring history as a company, this successful application seeming to indicate approval and tacit endorsement of our business savvy. But nowadays, Roger suddenly has no idea what he’s saying, and worse, he’s spreading incantations and myth throughout the community.

Woe is us. Best muzzle the dude, and fast.

And yet: Throughout Finn’s theatrics, and amid the ham-fisted diversionary tactics of his colleagues, has the Bridges Authority or anyone else connected with them (hint: One Southern Indiana) even once produced an economic impact statement purporting to study in detail an unsavory phenomenon that my small business and others might well be forced to endure sooner rather than later, namely, the imposition by an unelected governmental appendage of a toll which indisputably acts in pure daily reality as a tax, one that absolutely and undeniably will have the practical effect of raising the cost of goods and services to my clientele across the river?

Surely this well-dressed, well-financed, well-bred committee, a veritable cross-section of purely unelected community respectability (does it contain a single small business owner?), has commissioned such a study.

Surely this study proves me wrong, because why else would the Authority be so quick and smug in brushing aside concerns of those like me who actually are working, running a business, right here on the ground and in the trenches?

Because, gee whiz, there’s just no way the Authority would proceed with its blithe, facile reassurances that a post-tolling metro area will be peaches and cream for me and mine without some sort of hard evidence to fall back on, right?

That’s crazily unimaginable, isn’t it?

Unless, of course, the Bridges Authority, 1Si and all the various ambitious politicians hitching their Conestogas to St. Daniels’ future electoral champagne supernova have known from the start that tolls actually are going to hurt their fellow Hoosiers, both working commuters and small business owners.

Unless they’ve always known and don’t care, having convinced themselves that the evangelical zeal of the bridges project trumps every other human concern, and expect that Hoosiers will be good little pliable creatures to be patted on the head, happily willing to appease their betters, and taking the economic hit for the greater good of Kerry Stemler’s financial empire.

If so, and if Southern Indiana small businesses will be asked to serve as sacrificial pawns in what amounts to a form of eminent domain removal, that’s just fine with me as long as St. Daniels buys me the (expletive deleted) out.

Isn’t that what government does during eminent domain proceedings?

They buy you the (expletive deleted) out, and get you out of the way, right?

Cool beans. I am soooooo there.

Once I’ve been bought out, I finally will have ample free time to advise Jerry Finn on how to run his foundation – not that I’ve ever done it, or know anything about it, but hey, it’s a free country, right? I can know just by looking … after a healthy draught of Kool-Aid.

(It’s a free country, except when you’re crossing a bridge that was paid off thirty years ago.)

Me? I’m more than eager to play my role, and I know when to fold up and cash out. I’m willing to shut the (expletive deleted) up, and to gratefully attend the show trial press conference, admitting tearfully that I know nothing at all about my business, never did, not once cared about the greater good, and in my stubborn refusal to release my soul from its shackles, was unwilling to accept Rep. Clere’s kind, selfless offer of conversion to the gospel of St. Daniels, thus assisting in his angling for a better job further up the ladder once a Hoosier is installed in the White House.

What was I thinking? The shame! Yes, I deserve the public humiliation. Twenty years of work, and I learned nothing about business, nothing at all, not even whose butt to kiss and when to kiss it.

Just add a couple million to the bridges price tag, guys, and I’m the (expletive deleted) outta here.

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