City and Car Club find resolution, maybe  

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  A testy meeting between several Elizabethton City Council members and the Carter County Car Club Wednesday afternoon may have produced a resolution regarding traffic movement through downtown Elizabethton during Saturday night's Downtown Cruise-In event.
  Mayor Sam LaPorte along with council members Janie McKinney, Bill Carter and Richard Sammons met with Club President Jack Tester, event organizers and several downtown merchants at City Hall early Wednesday afternoon in an effort to resolve problems apparently touched off by a council decision last week.
  City Council members voted at Thursday night's council meeting to keep the right lane of East Elk Avenue open to through traffic from the 400 block to the East Elk/Pine Street intersection. According to the council decision traffic had the option to turn left or right onto Pine Street.
  "If it is the prerogative of city council to modify it, that is certainly within their right," LaPorte told Tester. "We have asked you to do one thing."
  The controversy ignited at Saturday night's event when organizers diverted vehicle traffic away from East Elk Avenue near downtown for over one hour. The detour occurred while an awards ceremony recognizing the best vintage automobiles on display at the show.
  Another minor dispute broke out when officers of the Elizabethton Police Department received resistance from car owners parked along Pine Street when they were asked to move their vehicles to allow through traffic as requested Thursday night by the council.
  At the meeting, a visibly irked LaPorte repeatedly asked Tester if he had been informed council members wanted one lane of East Elk Avenue open. He also vociferously disputed rumors the council was looking for a reason to end the event in downtown.
  City Manager Charles Stahl who also attended the meeting said he had communicated to Tester that the right lane was to remain open after Thursday night's council vote. Tester stated he had not heard from any council member but was made aware of the council's decision through Stahl before Saturday night. Stahl also said the city administration backed the event and he knew of no overt opposition from any council member.
  "I am unaware of one council member who is against the car show event," Stahl told Tester.
  Tester also said the Car Club had been made aware of the council's desire to keep one lane of East Elk Avenue in downtown during each event through information to the Downtown Business Association. However, he adamantly said the center turn lane had always been open to through traffic after the show began.
  "We have never denied any citizens access to downtown Elizabethton," said Tester. "We have to have a time to get the show cars in place."
  Tester also acknowledged that East Elk had been closed off altogether Saturday night. Tester said the closure was necessary given the amount of pedestrian traffic on the street Saturday night for the awards ceremony.
  "It was a safety issue," Tester said. "I was not comfortable with cars coming through there with that many people on the street.
  Ron McCloud, owner of Antiques on Elk in downtown, lobbied council members to allow organizers to divert through traffic away from downtown at least one hour to 90 minutes beginning at 4:30 p.m. each Saturday to get show vehicles in position along East Elk Avenue. He added that such a decision did not mean organizers would block every car attempting to enter the downtown area.
  "We would not impede those people from coming through," he said.
  The City Council voted 6-0 at its March meeting to approve an agreement with the Carter County Car Club to bring the Cruise-In event downtown along the 400 to 600 blocks of East Elk Avenue and a portion of East E Street on Saturday nights from April to October.
  The agreement includes an option for either party to terminate the event at its discretion.
  The Cruise-In was held in the parking lot near Ingle's supermarket on West Elk Avenue for several years. The city currently provides Car Club members with barrels and signs to manage traffic movement and vehicle placement during the event. During past Saturday nights, Pine Street from the Veterans War Memorial to East E Street as well as Elm Street had been closed to accommodate the event until the council's vote Thursday night.
  LaPorte and Sammons were also upset about derogatory comments purportedly made about council members over the public address system Saturday night. Sammons also felt his fears that the show would change from a "grassroots" event to public enterprise were now being realized.
  "We did not grant you carte blanche to shut down our town," he told Tester.
  The meeting lasted over one hour until club members accepted LaPorte's suggestion to open the center lane of East Elk Avenue and not divert vehicle traffic from downtown at Saturday night's event. He said it would be up to the full council to decide whether the center lane or right lane of East Elk Avenue in downtown would be open at a council workshop scheduled next week.
  The issue of blocking traffic for one hour to position cars would be discussed then LaPorte said.
  "It is going to work," said McKinney who has been a staunch supporter of the event.
  An officer with the Elizabethton Police Department will be stationed at the intersection of East Elk Avenue to direct traffic for motorists requesting to travel through the 400 to 600 blocks of East Elk Avenue according to Deputy Police Chief Larry Shell who also attended the meeting.
  During the meeting, Shell said police needed a contact point each Saturday night to assure problems could be solved quickly. He also reiterated concerns raised by Police Chief Roger Deal regarding the officers patrolling the event full-time with few days off and increased overtime pay. The city estimated police overtime costs related to patrolling the event could amount up to $13,000 in March.
  "Once you pull the police into the equation, the event changes in that it moves from a club orchestrated event to a police operation," Shell said after the meeting. "I know they don't want that and I know we don't want that."