The Kingston Emporium is a major selling point and fixture at the University of Rhode Island. With a campus as isolated as ours, it adds the unquantifiable convenience and pleasure of eating something that’s not dining hall food. It puts other goods and services that students need within walking distance of classes and dorms. It’s a hangout spot, a place to study or maybe even a place to collect a paycheck for the entire campus community. But unless the issues that have been plaguing patrons are addressed, much of that business could quickly be lost.
Students, faculty and staff are scared to park and by extension use the Emporium. Although the towing and parking problems that were reported in the Cigar last month are not a new phenomenon, the attention and traction they have gotten this year has been evident.
“People are scared to come up here and park and eat because they don’t know if their car is going to be there,” said Sam Boutros, owner of The Rhode House. “I feel bad for these kids,” he added.
Since The Cigar’s initial report, the campus conversation has inevitably moved toward avoiding or even boycotting the Emporium. “I haven’t gone up there,” said Assistant Research Professor Andrea Paiva in the March 12 story.
“It’s really pushing our business away,” said Karen Boutros, an owner of The Rhode House on the towing fears in the Emporium. “It does affect us because now the students are getting real frustrated, so they don’t want to come up.” Students have little choice or sway and their only guaranteed option in avoiding a very expensive lunch is by completely not putting themselves at risk.
Business owners in the Emporium, who regularly help patrons fight towing by vouching for them, providing receipts and warning visitors before their vehicles are towed, will obviously be hurt by any actions students take, but are regularly hesitant to take the issue to someone who can definitively prevent it.
Marley Properties, the Waltham, Massachusetts company that owns and rents out the Emporium and other similar plazas, is also the party responsible for hiring J&D’s West Kingston Service, consequently creating the rules by which cars are to be towed. “If there was a parking problem up here that was affecting some of the businesses, it would behoove the landlords to rectify that problem,” said another Emporium business owner who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution by Marley Properties.
“There’s only so much you can say as a business owner up here when it comes to how you really feel,” said the business owner. “They would get rid of me just like that.”
The owners of both businesses claim that the landowners care very little about problems in the Emporium and expressing issues to them is liable to get them into trouble. “If we call the landlord we’re in jeopardy,” Karen Boutros agreed. “We’re stuck.”
Marley Properties and its CEO, Brett Marley, would not return any of the Cigar’s requests for a response during its month-long investigation.
But Marley Properties is a business, one that gets its income from its tenants. Regardless of Marley’s tactics as a landlord and the power they hold over the Emporium’s business owners, the business owners themselves also hold a degree of power, especially as a unified group. An exercise of that power might be the only way to defend the community members that patronize their businesses and thereby save their businesses as a whole.
“It’s not going to end well,” said the anonymous business owner. “[Students] have to do something to save [themselves]. But it’s going to make us suffer. And we can’t stand up to the landlord. We just can’t.”
But unfortunately for everyone, the result of trying to force change might not be any better than not standing up. The Emporium’s only hope might be for a coalition, a union of a majority of business owners to stand up and force a change to improve their business – a change that shouldn’t have to be forced at all and, in theory, a change that should be in Marley’s best interest too. But if everyone that pays Marley’s bills are united in saving their businesses, what choice will he realistically have?