Why Small Business Saturday is Stupid

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I know I might seem like the last person to rag on something like Small Business Saturday, but I have some issues. Last Saturday Morgantown businesses celebrated the “venerated” holiday, but there’s a number of practical and holistic reasons we should abolish the practice altogether. I appreciate the idea but not the execution.

1. The idea that we should only celebrate small businesses one day a year is ignorant. It puts small business in a realm of commemoration alongside things we should care about but habitually tune out – AIDs research and breast cancer awareness are painful examples. Unfortunately, lots of people are numb to these awareness months, barring huge programs like Relay for Life. Associating small business with charity is a bad way to think about our local economy.
What has “awareness” done for anybody? Being “aware” is a lot different than actually taking action. Thanks to Small Business Saturday, people can be “aware” that small businesses exist and shop there once a year.

2. It’s celebrated on the worst possible day of the year. Sure, I see what they tried to do. It’s logical to try and ride the wave of Black Friday shopping, but there’s still a problem here. We’re making small business an afterthought, a place we go after we binge-shop at major chains. People should be lining up outside of local businesses on Black Friday, not visiting the day after when they’re exhausted and presumably broke. Let’s make it Small Business Black Friday instead.

3. Small Business Saturday promotes the trivialization of small businesses. When American Express started the tradition of recognizing small businesses they had good intentions, but the fact we need this kind of day identifies our failure to recognize how important small business are. Small businesses are the cornerstone of our world. More than half of the working population (like 120 million people) work in small businesses. Small businesses have generated 65 percent of new jobs since ’95. There are 28 million small businesses in the United States.
Those stats are nothing to shake a stick at. Saying we need a “day of commemoration” makes small businesses sound like a small, marginalized part of the business world, which is far from true. If we want to fix our cultural perspective on small businesses we need more than just a day of celebration – we need entire years of recognition. We should all respect our local business owners for what they do and shop locally everyday – it’s the key for making our community vibrant and strong.

Europe’s had this figured out for ages. Their small businesses aren’t just vibrant – they’re sexy. As a result, chains have trouble catching on, and every community has a unique business environment. Let’s get on the bandwagon.

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Cafe de Flore, Paris. Photo by Damien Roue.

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Black Friday Cheat Sheet: Morgantown and Beyond

Black Friday can be a wild experience, but if you’re up for the task, it can be well worth it.

First you need to decide if Black Friday shopping is for you. (I mean really think it through.) If there isn’t a particular item you have in mind, it probably isn’t worth going. Black Friday isn’t the time to go browsing. However, if you have a plan, know what you’re going to buy and don’t eat too much turkey beforehand, you can master Black Friday. Here’s your cheat sheet:

The Morgantown Mall:

Select stores in the mall will be opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. This includes Aeropostale, American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret, PacSun, JC Penney, Elder-Beerman, Journeys, Spencer’s and Charlotte Russe among many others. Finish Line, Forever 21, Radio Shack and the GAP will be opening at midnight with Christopher and Banks, GNC and Francesca’s opening at 6 a.m. The rest of the mall will open at 8 a.m. on Black Friday. (Click here to read the full listing.) Plan accordingly!

University Town Center:

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Image from Target.com. This is the best price for the iPad Air, however, Walmart is having the best deal for the iPad Mini.

The Town Center holds many of the big-name department stores that will be having great deals on Black Friday. For example, Target is a major player on Black Friday. They even have a pre-Black Friday sale going on now. For the real deal though, check out their advertisement for Black Friday. Some of the best deals include a Nintendo 3DS for only $149.99, an iPad Air for $479 with a $100 Target gift card and an Xbox Kinect bundle for $189.99.

Walmart is another major Black Friday hub. If you’re wanting to get an iPad Mini, this is the best place to purchase it. They’re on sale for $299 and include a $100 Walmart gift card. Other great deals include a $29 HP printer and some great prices on TVs (see below). Walmart is having a special this Black Friday where you’re guaranteed certain items at the sale price so long as you pick up a wristband between the allotted time (which varies per product). Don’t forget, they’ll price match everything, too. (Pssst.. don’t forget there’s another Walmart in Morgantown! This one might be less busy.)

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Image from Walmart.com. Here are just a few of the great prices on TVs.

Best Buy is the third big one in the Town Center. Doors open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, but there will be special doorbusters throughout the evening. Great deals include an Xbox 360 bundle worth $399.95 for only $189.99, discounted DVDs (between $1.99 and $9.99, originally $2.99 to $59.99) and $200 savings on HP Intel laptops. Keep in mind, though, you need to have a ticket for all doorbusters.

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Image from best buy.com. Save $200 on HP Intel laptops!

Unfortunately, Morgantown doesn’t have all the best deals. If you’re serious about savings, travel up to Pennsylvania to get great deals (and get out of paying sales tax on clothing!)

Tanger Outlets:

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Image form Tanger Outlets. Get 20 and 30 percent off when you download the savings card.

Tanger Outlets in Washington, Pa. is just a short drive from Morgantown. It opens at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Download the bonus card to save 20 percent from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., and save 30 percent from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. Additionally, individual stores are having some great deals on their own, too! If you want to avoid the Black Friday rush, they’ll be having deals all weekend.

The Mall at Robinson:

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Image from the Mall at Robinson’s Facebook page.

Located in Robinson Town Center, Pa., the Mall at Robinson is a fairly short drive from Morgantown, too. The mall is hosting an event, Shop Like a Rockstar starting at midnight with gift card giveaways and freebies.

The mall includes a Macy’s, Banana Republic, Sears, (a really awesome) Forever 21, JC Penney and Buckle among many others.

With this guide, a little planning and a lot of patience, Black Friday can be a success. Good luck, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Should We Kick PNC Out of the Mountainlair?

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There’s been some pretty heavy debate on campus recently: PNC Bank’s five year contract with WVU has expired, and there’s been some serious disagreement about whether the bank should get another contract. Environmental groups on campus are upset with the Bank’s past behavior, while supporters argue for the Bank’s versatility and service. Currently, the contract to be WVU’s banking partner is up the air – should we give it to PNC again? 

Let’s weigh our options.

Reasons to Kick PNC Out

1. PNC has given loans to companies that fund Mountaintop Removal – in essence, PNC has helped fund the destruction of West Virginia. In 2011, PNC wrote loans to some of the largest coal companies in the U.S.: Patriot Coal, Consol Energy, and Arch Coal are a few examples. All of them use Mountaintop Removal, a high-impact form of mining that has a disastrous effect on the environment. MTR ruins streams, pollutes groundwater, destroys animal habitat and damages the health of local residents. By flattening mountaintops these companies are destroying West Virginia’s ecosystem. The irony is worse given West Virginia’s status as “The Mountain State” – do we want to allow a bank complicit in this destruction to make money off of WVU?

2. With the end of this contract, we have a rare opportunity to change WVU’s bank. I’m willing to bet the next contract will last another five years, and if we sign with PNC again, that’s another five years we’ll have to wait to get rid of them. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity. There are people at WVU who agree with me – last March the Sierra Student Coalition at WVU organized protests outside the Mountainlair against PNC. Let’s strike while the iron is hot.

3. West Virginia University is the flagship educational institution in this state – what kind of message are we sending if we take money from a bank like PNC? Besides the Mountaintop Removal issue, PNC is a Pittsburgh-based company. Why should we use them and funnel money to a bank outside West Virginia when there’s options like MVB and United that are WV-based? If we have PNC as our bank, we’re showing local banks that we don’t care about them. Should West Virginia University, the pride and joy of West Virginia, partner with an out-of-state bank that funds the destruction of our mountains? Even the Student Goverment Association at WVU gets somewhere between $40,000 and $52,000 for their budget from PNC’s rent payments for the Lair location. Bad juju.

Reasons to Keep PNC Bank

1. As the fifth-largest in the U.S., PNC is a powerful bank with national reach. There are PNC locations all over the eastern U.S. As a result, students coming from several states away can be sure they have a relevant bank. Students starting their first bank accounts with PNC here know that when they go home to New York, Ohio or New Jersey that they’ll have a bank there. Their parents will also be able to put funds in their accounts – we all know how important that is. If we keep PNC, WVU will be more appealing to students from far away. As we know, that’s WVU’s goal – look at our move to the Big 12 Conference.

2. PNC provides lots of excellent services to customers, especially students. The bank is no stranger to students – there are PNCs at more than 100 colleges and universities across eight states. With financial planning resources and flexible student accounts, PNC makes it easy for students to learn the ropes of banking. Plus, the organization offers super easy online and mobile banking, a must for modern times. But it’s not just about banking  – WVU outsources many financial services to PNC, including financial aid reimbursement checks. PNC is well-established and is a great choice for students – that’s probably how they won that first contract in the first place.

3. If we kick out PNC for idealistic reasons, can we be sure another bank can handle the workload? Currently, WVU outsources a lot of financial work to PNC, including the issuing of reimbursement checks. That’s millions of dollars a year transferred, cashed out, and deposited in, on and around WVU. Also, PNC operates a bank location in the Mountainlair and maintains ATMs at WVU campuses all across the state. Can we be sure another smaller bank can handle PNC’s workload? PNC is well established and their methods are sound. A smaller replacement bank might not have the resources to handle WVU’s complex demands, which could be bad for students. A lot of things hosted by the Mountainlair – Mountaineer Week, Homecoming, UpAllNight – benefit directly from PNC’s payments to WVU. Many students base their livelihood off refund checks – can we afford to risk a potential delay in issuing them?

What do you think? Should we keep PNC? Leave a comment or tweet at me. You can also come and speak your voice at the WVUSGA meetings every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Hatfield’s B of the Mountainlair. 

So we can argue whatever we like about PNC, but how is the University responding?

Normally, if a contract ends and the University is interested in finding another partner, they’ll begin the Request For Proposal process, and potential clients (in this case, banks) would bid on the job. Each potential partner would offer services at the lowest cost, and the University would pick the bank that wins. It’s basically like an anonymous silent auction where the University picks the winner. The RFP’s are usually open and up for the public to see – the RFP for the bank spot is not online yet. This may be because the committee overseeing the contract process hasn’t met yet, considering the anonymous student on the board was appointed by SGA late last week.

Or… WVU may be withholding the open RFP because they’re trying to make a behind-the-scenes deal. It’s no secret that United Bank definitely donates massive amounts of money to WVU, especially to the athletic department. I’m sure those kinds of donations could win brownie points when it comes to business deals. Maybe WVU is courting exclusive competitors in private – which one can come up with a sweeter deal for the University?

Whatever happens, I hope it’s in the best interests of the University, the students, and our state.

Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.

Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.

Five Reasons Why You Should Hate the New Panera on High Street

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So in case you didn’t know, construction is almost completed on a Panera Bread location right at the top of High Street, in what was formerly a vacant parking lot. Many students are ecstatic, considering the restaurants central location, easy accessibility from campus and fresh dining options.

Unfortunately, all of these students are terribly misinformed. The Panera Bread on High Street is going to devastate (I do not exaggerate) the local restaurant scene, and all of you should hate Panera and never go there. I’m going to tell you five reasons why.

1. It’s going to be expensive. We’re all broke college students here, no lie. Still, I guarantee the new Panera is going to be the busiest place in town for years to come, full of college students paying for soup bread bowls they can’t afford. Unless the place starts to offer student discounts, I’m going to argue it’s not worth it. If you want a cheap panini or coffee, you should go to Cafe Mojo or Jay’s Daily Grind, places where students are loved and pampered.

2. It promotes a chain-restaurant lifestyle. Let’s face it: people love chain restaurants. They’re familiar. Every one is the same. No matter where you are in the country, you can go into a Panera and get that same hipster dining experience, which is why people love it. The result? People miss authentic (and better quality) restaurants. If you want to be a hipster, why don’t you eat at Maxwell’s, where WVU English professors are regulars, all the food is made from scratch and all the salt and pepper shakers are made from handmade pottery. If you don’t ever broaden your horizons, you’ll always suffer from a fear of the unknown.

3. They refuse to let their statistically-underpaid bakers organize a union. Bakers at Panera work late nights to create “artisanal” breads for each day, but thanks to corporate budgeting, they’re paid less than other bakers across the country. These workers are kept to strict regulation and training standards, yet the average pay is about $10.45 an hour for this employee, while the median pay for bakers in the U.S. is about $11.27 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And they won’t let their bakers organize in a union – more than once the arguments against the union have been religiously driven.  The legal battle has been going on for years.

So yeah, Panera’s donates their leftover bread to local charities, but they’re not really going the extra mile to take care of the community. After all, it seems like a cop-out: instead of throwing out our stale bread, lets give it to the homeless and get some good PR. The people who baked that bread? They have to watch out for themselves.

4. They’re trying really hard to disguise the fact that they’re a corporate profit machine. So everybody knows a health food craze is sweeping the nation, which is good. People should be healthier. The problem? With pretty lights and proto-Mediterranean meal names, they’re fooling us into a false sense of satisfaction. If you look closely, the food isn’t as healthy as it seems. Your desire to eat in a healthy, authentic, friendly restaurant is well placed, but Panera isn’t that restaurant. What kind of “authentic” restaurant promotes their “secret” menu in a freaking press release? And look at this: they’re pretending like this unique restaurant model, which is a huge PR stunt, is somehow sustainable.

Do yourself a favor and explore – authentic dining experiences are all over Morgantown. Get homemade Pad Thai at Chaang Thai, a muscle-car-themed burger at Tailpipes, or some old-fashioned fried chicken at Dirty Bird. Even though it’s a chain, you could stop by Pita Pit for fresh ingredients that put Subway to shame. Doesn’t get more authentic than that, folks.

5. We need to protect Morgantown’s business identity. Chains like Panera, CVS, Sheetz and others are threatening the small, locally (and often alumni) owned businesses that give Morgantown it’s identity. Morgantown is small but full of students from all over the country – chains have immense success because of their brand identity. Because of their power, a chain restaurant could topple the fragile balance that keeps Morgantown’s small businesses alive, yet these chains are given priority in real estate deals. As you read this, people are organizing to prevent a bunch of other chains from whitewashing our city into just another American strip mall.

Sign the petition, eat locally, and stay the hell out of Panera – not just for your own sake, but for all of us.

Photo from GuiltlessGourmet

Tyranny incarnate.

*Author’s note: I edited some parts this post to mention even more local restaurants. Follow the links and visit these locally-owned establishments!

Two Nights, Two Sides of Conflict: High Street’s Food Vendors

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I’ve been hearing a lot of fuss about food vendors on High Street, and I realized I have some involved perspectives on this topic. There’s been a lot of misunderstandings all around, and I hope that this post helps clear the air.

Let me set the scene for you: as one can imagine in a college town, Morgantown has a vibrant night life scene. Every weekend thousands of students pack clubs, bars and restaurants until the wee hours of the morning. Seeing a business opportunity, several individuals have set up mobile food stands to cater to the inebriated bar goers. They have business licenses and are running legal business. To be clear, there are three vendors who consistently appear on the street during weekend evenings: The Morgantown Taco Truck, Joe the Hot Dog Man, and Birdman. The latter two sell hot dogs. Everyone stays in the same place on the street, each within a reasonable distance from one another.

The Morgantown Taco Truck is a newcomer, but Joe has been selling his hotdogs on High Street for sixteen years. Birdman’s been a landmark of downtown for seven years.

In mid-September the Morgantown City Council, under pressure from local brick-and-mortar businesses, passed an ordinance that prevents these vendors from setting up anywhere within the 300 block of High Street – basically, these vendors are banned from High Street’s busiest section. The ban takes effect January 1st.

The ban has since received extreme backlash from the students and the community. A number of arguments have been heard both for and against the ban: Local bar owner George Papandreas is a big proponent of the ban, and WVU students have organized several petitions. The local blogosphere is pretty pissed off. 

The ban still stands unchallenged, however, and the fate of the food vendors hangs in the balance.

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I’ve been curious about this conflict since it began last semester and I’ve paired my interest with assignments in my photography classes. As a result, I’ve become intimately familiar with both the businesses that footed complaints about the vendors and the vendors themselves. Last semester I spent an entire night chronicling Pita Pit’s drunken business rush, and two weekends ago I spent an evening with Joe Byrd, or The Birdman, a vendor who has been selling hotdogs in front of Cool Ridge for seven years.

I wanted to write this post to help clear up some misunderstandings on both sides of the argument. All of the following is what I’ve learned throughout my assignments and from talking directly to the parties involved.

Burke Manning, the owner and operator of Pita Pit who is often credited with being the first to complain about the vendors, is not on a vendetta to kick them off the street. He is not the horrible whiney antagonist many make him out to be. He’s a solid guy who works hard, and he has no problems with the vendor’s current locations. Manning had a single, easily remedied issue: he didn’t appreciate the vendors setting up directly in front of his business, which only occurred a few times. As he said in an article I wrote last March,

“It’s cool that the (food vendors) are mobile, so they aren’t limited to where they can be,” he said. “But I think the city should try to level the playing field a little bit.”

Burke Manning.

Burke Manning.

Since then, the Taco Truck has refrained from parking near Pita Pit, and on many weekends the parking meters on High Street are closed. If you want to know who is really driving the push to move them off the street, check out some intelligent (albeit cynical) investigation by another local.

I imagine one part of the business owner’s complaints are the extreme differences in taxes paid by the vendors and the brick-and-mortars. From afar, I can see how it looks like the vendors are making great money.

I spent an evening with Birdman and I’ve talked in great length with Joe, and I can safely say the following:

The food vendors are NOT making revenue substantial enough to justify kicking them off the street to “level the playing field.” Joe only works two days a week and doesn’t even live in Morgantown. I’m not sure if Birdman has a debit card. If your complaint about the vendors is that they’re sucking away your business, I’d ask you to rethink your argument. These individuals are living hand-to-mouth. Joe’s been around for 16 years, Birdman for 7. If they had been damaging brick-and-mortars’ revenue, the complaint would have come years ago.

That being said,

“Sidewalk safety” is not the true reason for this ban. The original proposal came as a way to prevent drunken students from stumbling into the street, causing a safety hazard. Last spring Chief of Police Ed Preston gave a presentation that supported the idea that these street vendors impede pedestrian traffic, but it’s pretty clear from both Birdman’s and Joe’s stands that they respect the five-foot clearance required by their business permits. The motivation on both sides of the argument is the same: making money.

I would hope that you, as a reader and a supporter of fair business, also observe and recognize the crazy power struggle that’s going on here. Personally, the vendors are idyllic parts of Morgantown tradition. To eliminate them is to remove a part of our history and our small-town culture. Not to mention the whole thing is a pretty heinous case of eliminating specific business competition with the support of an impressionable local government. I’ll tell you what this ban does: it removes the livelihood of less than ten (all lower class) people under the guise of protecting thousands.

If that’s not unfair, I don’t know what is.

All photos are by me.

Business, Traffic, and more Business: The Reason Behind the Roundabout

So for my inaugural post, I’ll be exploring a side of Morgantown that often goes unnoticed by the downtown-based student population: Suncrest. This side of town is continually growing thanks to Morgantown’s increasing post-grad population, and a new addition to the infrastructure has the town (wrongfully) up in arms. I want to explore why.

Location, Location

While Google Maps puts the Suncrest neighborhood somewhere near the Arby’s on Patteson, colloquial use has expanded the name’s reach to define most of the area on the outside of the WVU Hospitals Complex. This is due to the influence of the newly-minted Suncrest Towne Centre, a strip mall featuring boutiques, restaurants (one of which may be promoting the exploitation of women), hotels and the WVU Dental Clinic. This place is exploding: new venues keep opening, and some have already become local favorites – here’s looking at you, Sonic.

Photo from STC's website.

Photo from STC’s website.

There’s no wonder the area is booming. The centre, or “Suncrest,” is an oasis of businesses aimed at townies and post graduates. The area isn’t easily accessible on foot, nor is it close to Morgantown’s student-dependent downtown area. The result is a beautiful business Shangri-la with lots of parking and easy access from I-68.

Morgantown’s Second Downtown

The Mileground used to be the “student-free” business haven townies always dreamed of – at least before the Blue Parrot moved in. Now it seems that the city is putting a lot of interest in development around Suncrest, from the large, family-oriented apartments across the street to the months-long construction project that expanded route 705 to four lanes.

Obviously the city is preparing for population and business expansion in Suncrest. It’s no wonder why they’re so hot – look, it’s spelled Towne Centre! So chic!

This expansion inspired the city to build better infrastructure around 705. This project also led to the construction of a traffic-flow phenomenon known as “The Roundabout.”

Image from wboy.com

Image from wboy.com

A roundabout is a type of intersection that utilizes a circular traffic pattern and selective yielding to promote constant, safe traffic flow. The roundabout built on the intersection of 705 and Mileground road replaced a traffic light which, as any local driver knows, was prone to brutal traffic.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, roundabouts are a much safer and much more efficient solution to traffic lights. Plus these roundabouts are much cheaper to build and maintain, considering they require no lights. Because stopping is less common, roundabouts promote the constant flow of traffic from all directions.

This roundabout is going to be excellent for businesses in the Suncrest area because it’s going to prevent mood-killing midday traffic, allow for more cars to travel on 705, and generally promote transit throughout the area. More people means more business, which is great news for everybody.

And seriously, Europe’s been using these things since like 1909. It’s about time we wizened up. And maybe that’s why…

People Really, REALLY, Hate the Roundabout

Literally every person I’ve heard talk about the roundabout hates it. And for no real good reason, either – I’ve heard people claim:

1. It doesn’t help traffic. False.

2. It’s less safe: False.

3. It’s more expensive than a traffic light: False.

4. It’s going to cause more traffic accidents: False.

5. It’s European and therefore inferior. European: True. Inferior: xenophobia is so 18th century, folks.

I’m going to point out an enraging, terribly reported and generally intellectually offensive opinion article in the Daily Athenaeum that challenges the effectiveness of the roundabout, because the writer said all of the above and is completely, unabashedly wrong. Like, do you even have a car?

Roundabout loves you – why not love Roundabout?

Let’s reiterate why we should all love the roundabout and what it brings to our community. Later this week, my fellow bloggers are going to explore the specifics for me, so stay tuned.

1. Suncrest is getting bigger and we need better traffic patterns. In like fifteen years that roundabout is going to be the best thing that’s happened to the mileground and 705, considering by then people will be skilled at navigating it.

2. It’s safer, cheaper and more reliable. God knows we don’t need more traffic accidents – 20 people a day die in intersection collisions.

3. Small businesses all across that part of town are going to benefit from increased traffic flow. Small business is the lifeblood of our town, and we need to support them in any way possible. This includes infrastructure.

Please learn to love the roundabout, and learn how to navigate it. The effectiveness of the design relies on the quick and efficient navigation of it’s travelers, so please be kind to the confused old people you might see driving the wrong way around it. Honestly though, if you just follow the signs and yield, you’ll discover that the roundabout might be the panacea to Morgantown’s brutal traffic problems.

I think time will sway the nonbelievers.