By Cliff Dunn
WILTON MANORS – Jackson Padgett wants patrons of his bar and the other businesses at The Shoppes of Wilton Manors to know something: “It’s safe to park your car at Alibi.”
The owner—along with his business and life partner Mark Negrete—of the venerable Georgie’s Alibi bar and restaurant in Wilton Manors, Padgett finds himself in the center of a local storm in which freedom to parkwherever- you-want collides with the freedom to find-a-parking-spot, and in which shopping center tenants are being held to account for a landlord’s actions in much the same way someone might be asked to apologize because his apartment manager voted a certain way.
The Shoppes of Wilton Manors’ parking issue was first reported in three Agenda pieces: an opinion written by former editor Alex Vaughn (Agenda, April 5, 2012 Q-POINT: “Parking in the Shoppes of Wilton Manors: A Death Wish?”), in an April 19, 2012 Letter to the Editor, as well as last fall, when the new shopping center towing policy went into effect. Padgett and Negrete say neither they nor any of the managers at Alibi—nor any of the other tenants at The Shoppes for that matter, as far as they know—had any role in making that policy, which was enacted eight months ago by the property management company and owner, Rivercrest Realty.
What they will own up to is a concerted effort since August to raise awareness of the zero tolerance policy towards unattended vehicles in The Shoppes. On tabletop cards and on signage displayed prominently in the Alibi and its surrounding parking lot, the bar owners alerted their patrons that Rivercrest had “contracted with EMS Towing, and have instructed them to tow any car should they park in the lot and walk away from the Shoppes. This is at the vehicle owners’ expense.”
There are several “camps” in this most local of Gayborhood conflicts: One of these (exemplified in Alex Vaughn’s April 5 “Q-POINT” piece, which can be viewed online at floridaagenda.com) believes the property management is within its rights to tow cars “abandoned” for a few hours (or rounds of drinks) by their owners as they walk down Wilton Drive, but that the selection of a towing yard in the middle of a “tough” urban neighborhood (as evidenced by EMS Towing’s location near Sistrunk Blvd.) is unconscionable. (Editor’s Note: After the Q-POINT piece ran, Rivercrest Realty cancelled its business arrangement with EMS Towing, and now employs the more communityactive— and neighborhood safe—Sal’s Towing.)
Another camp sees the actions of the property company (often misinterpreted as being the actions of the bars and other businesses in The Shoppes themselves) as a gross infringement on patrons’ right to “bar crawl:” What matter—they argue— if you start at Alibi for a drink, then make your way to Boom, and—leaving your car to the convenient care of The Shoppes’ security and parking spaces— stroll up towards Matty’s, Rosie’s, and points north- (or south-) ward?
Other “camps” are more fragmented in that they comprise individuals who work at or patronize establishments in the area other than those within The Shoppes. These can include those with business at any of the more than two dozen bars, restaurants, boutiques, salons, and professional offices that dot Wilton Drive within a five-block strip between Wilton Manors City Hall and Five Points.
“We always have the welcome mat out for people who want to come and enjoy The Shoppes,” emphasizes Padgett. “The problem for all of the tenants in the shopping center is that for years it has been ‘ground zero’ for people who wanted to park their cars and enjoy a day of shopping and strolling down the Drive, and over the years it has eaten up much of the parking—not only for us but for Craig at Boom and Gay Mart, and for Java Boys, Island City Health and Fitness, and the boutique stores.”
Reece Darham, the owner of Island City Health and Fitness (ICHF)— located just yards from Alibi— confirmed Padgett. “There are days when I have [gym] members who can’t find a place to park,” agreed Darham, who also serves as co-chair for the R a i n b o w B u s i n e s s C o a l i t i o n (RBC), the business and c ommu n i t y a s s o c i a t i on for LGBT and LGBTf r i e n d l y Greater Fort La u d e rd a l e .
“There are days when I can’t even find a spot.” Pa d g e t t ’ s partner, Mark Negrete, points to the area’s growth—and a difficulty in managing that growth— as one element contributing to the parking foul-up. “When I first came to Wilton Manors, people compared it to ‘Mayberry,’” Negrete said, making reference to a mid-20th Century metaphor for small-town living. “This isn’t Mayberry anymore.”
Padgett, Negrete, and other business owners are rightly concerned that a property owner policy is inaccurately painting them as being unwelcoming to guests. “We bought a location that had great parking,” explains Negrete, trying not to sound apologetic for making a good business decision— one that has been turned against him and Padgett because the landlord is trying to err on the side of facilitating customer parking. There is also the question of the growth of business on Wilton Drive, something which will have long-range benefits for the city and its merchant tax base, as well jobs and housing opportunities that may be created by the growth of commerce on the city’s main thoroughfare.
Of the allegation that they or their managers and employees are initiating calls to the towing company, Padgett and Negrete are emphatic. “Absolutely not,” says Padgett, and Negrete agrees. “This was instituted by Rivercrest eight months ago, as was their hiring of Strike Force Security to enforce the policy. As a courtesy to our patrons, we hired two security guards to let them know about the towing policy, and to be aware that their cars would be towed if they left them unattended— that was on top of the signs, flyers, and magazine ads we ran to announce the towing policy.”
In spite of the numerous “friend of a friend” stories that relate second-hand a c c o u n t s of towing e x p e r i e n c e s within The S h o p p e s , Padgett says that of all the c o m p l a i n t s he has investigated, he has yet to have someone who was towed produce a receipt showing that they were at Alibi, or Tee Jay sushi, or another establishment in The Shoppes.
Island City Health and Fitness’ Darham supports this. “I have had at least two occasions where someone told me they had been towed, and in performing my due diligence I went to check their entry records, and found no swipe [of their member card].
Both times when I followed up with the guests, it proved to be something they had been told by a friend, and the member who complained hadn’t actually been to the gym that day.” Darham’s eyebrow arched, registering disappointment and seeming to say “oh well, human nature.”
“I respond personally to every email I receive, both the good and the critical ones,” says Padgett, noting that he and Negrete are open to criticism from well-meaning patrons and community members. “When something happens—a meal is unsatisfactory or the experience isn’t completely enjoyable—that will happen when humans are involved,” he says. “It is what we do about those mistakes or experiences that make all the difference, and why we do our very best to make our customers feel welcome, and why we make every effort to give back to this community of which we are very much a part.”
Padgett and Negrete employ over 125 people, and they offer health, dental, and vision insurance to their employees. “We love our staff and we believe in treating them with the same dignity and respect that we expect them to show our customers,” Padgett emphasizes. The pair have also contributed close to half a million dollars to support local charities and service organizations, not an easy row to hoe in this economy. Although both are adults and businessmen, they are hard-pressed to hide an underlying sense that they are being penalized for owning two of the most prime establishments on the Drive: Alibi, and Bill’s Filling Station—which is starting to experience its own parking pinch—across the street. They are unapologetic, though, about refusing to own the label of “parking police.”
More than anything else, Padgett is philosophical. “A customer of Alibi, or Tee Jay, or Boom, or Island City Fitness should be able to find a space when he needs one. That’s why we have the best parking lot in town,” he adds, well aware of the irony of that same ample parking being both a draw and a source of so much local contention. He also is aware of the subtle injustice of much of the negative buzz. “I have gone to Rosie’s when there was no valet parking available, and although I could have parked in the Publix lot and walked across the street, I felt it wasn’t appropriate for me to use one of their spaces without doing business with them,” offers Padgett, and without words, he communicates something foundational: most adults probably understand this same unspoken rule, even when they are breaking it.