Cruise-In issues "erupt"

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A simmering power struggle between some Elizabethton City Council members and organizers of the Downtown Cruise-In event came to a boil Saturday night following an incident involving changes in traffic flow patterns along East Elk Avenue and Pine Street directed by the council at its June meeting held Thursday.
   Council members voted Thursday night to keep the right lane of East Elk Avenue from the 400 block to the East Elk/Pine Street intersection open to through traffic. According to the council decision, traffic had the option to turn left or right at the East Elk Avenue/Pine Street intersection.
   "This is the only thing I'm aware of that the city has asked them for help on," Mayor Sam LaPorte said Monday regarding city regulation of the downtown Cruise-In event.
   Jack Tester, president of the Carter County Car Club, said Monday evening that club members were never made aware of the traffic pattern changes set forth by the council. He also said complaints made to City Council or government officials were never passed on to the club.
   "The only time we find out there is a problem is when the City Council brings it out at a meeting to get their name in the paper," said Tester, who owns Best Portraits on East Elk Avenue. "If we don't know about it we don't have any way to take care of it."
   Deputy Police Chief Larry Shell said Monday the right lane of East Elk Avenue was supposed to remain open for through traffic from the 400 to the 600 block. Vehicles were to have the option of turning left or right onto Pine Street near the Veterans War Memorial to exit the downtown area.
   Shell said it was his understanding, according to police officers at the scene, that cars were parked along south Pine Street preventing the flow of traffic.
   He said he was advised police met some resistance from event participants.
   "Our officers had to ask them to relocate and make clear the area for moving vehicles," said Shell. "There were some objections, but they did comply."
   At least one officer of the Elizabethton Police Department had been present at the event's initial downtown event to oversee logistical movement of event participants and motorists traveling through downtown. Tester said he and other event participants were outraged when police threatened to tow vehicles Saturday night that were not complying with the decision made by the council Thursday.
   The City Council voted in March to grant the Carter County Car Club permission to hold a Cruise-In event in downtown Elizabethton every Saturday night through October. Lining East Elk Avenue to Riverside Drive with classic automobiles, the event typically draws dozens of participants and hundreds of spectators to downtown Elizabethton.
   "When the city approved the Cruise-In, they essentially gave us control of downtown streets for Saturday night," said Tester who contended the council's original agreement included the closure of Pine Street for the event.
   Tester maintained the East Elk Avenue had only been closed to all traffic one time during a June 5 event where several hundred people gathered in the street for an awards ceremony honoring car show participants and downtown businesses.
   He felt the council had an "adversarial attitude" with the Cruise-In event and called the decision to open the right lane of East Elk Avenue "ridiculous" given logistical necessities needed by event organizers.
   "It shows that they don't know what they are talking about," Tester said. "If these City Council members would come and see what's going on they would see the lane is open."
   He said the car displays prohibited opening the right or left lane on East Elk Avenue. He added that the only electrical source available for the event's music wagon broadcasting site lies in the 400 block of East Elk Avenue in the right lane.
   "We have always maintained access through all downtown Elizabethton through the center lane," Tester said. "It has always remained accessible to anyone. We have never denied anyone access to downtown."
   LaPorte said the council made clear what they expected to club members in terms of granting access to downtown business for citizens not interested in attending the event. He said the event was evolving but pointed out the city made it clear to organizers that the city had to retain jurisdiction over the public venue where it was held.
   "If council wants to have a formal meeting, I will call it," he said. "I think we were clear on what we wanted down there."
   Elizabethton City Manager Charlie Stahl said Monday he spoke with Tester in an effort to resolve issues regarding traffic flow through the downtown area. City officials and car club organizers are tentatively expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue.
   "I hope we can resolve any communication issues that may have arisen," Stahl said.
   Tester said Stahl had been very communicative with the car show needs and that he did not express any problem to him regarding the event before the council met last week. He also felt it unrealistic to believe the event could go off week after week with no complaints at all.
   "They never came to us before or asked our opinion," said Tester of the council. "All the Car Club is asking for is to be communicated with and not have things done without our knowledge and behind our backs."