A thought for independent downtown business owners: Those favoring an equitable distribution of power must begin by organizing themselves, so as to achieve it.


Last night I had a few words to say about the forthcoming demise of NA Social, and my comments have generated varied responses.

This is good. It’s why I write in the first place. It was my aim all along to follow last evening’s post with this one, so to extend the discussion, it’s important not to confuse the overarching issue.

A political scientist named Harold Lasswell defined politics as “who gets what, when, and how,” and concurrently, the late Tip O’Neill was fond of repeating the axiom, “all politics is local.”

So: Politics is power, and politics is local.

Kelly’s original experience with Develop New Albany was about local politics, in the sense that Develop New Albany, with whom she butted heads, is an organization with “official” power derived from City Hall. In effect, City Hall has “recognized” DNA as the holder of certain powers, and understandably, DNA protects the power it has gained.

Unfortunately for DNA, the power it has gained falls almost exclusively into the realm of glorified prom planning committee. This is a favorable outcome for political power-brokers, but unfortunately it results in DNA neglecting other aspects of its Main Street mission — to its detriment.

After Kelly’s horrific experience with Taco Walk, she created NA Social, a very informal and highly creative pop-up concept, which in the eyes of some constituted a challenge to the power held by DNA.

In some ways it may have been true, and in others not; Kelly herself may or may not have had the interest or ability to nurture a long-term challenge to DNA’s sanctioned pre-eminence. She may or may not have cared.

These distinctions aren’t important. What’s important is that power once acquired seldom is relinquished without a negotiation (at the very least), and often action of a more direct nature. If nothing else, Kelly proved that.

Personalities aside, the existence of two similar entities (NA Social and DNA) should not have been an issue. But pie slice dimensions obviously still matter, and given the realities of an evolving scene, dissonance probably was inevitable.

As I’ve said many times before, and it’s a plain, simple fact, the fundamental problem with an organization like DNA tying itself so closely with City Hall — this one or any other one — is that when DNA asks a business to “join,” the business faces interpreting an unspoken and delicate question: Will refusal to “join” be interpreted as withholding tribute from an incumbent mayor’s power structure? 

Politics is power, politics is local. Don’t think for a millisecond that the prime possessor of political power at this moment (Jeff Gahan) isn’t aware that an organization like DNA can be exploited to enhance his own power. It can be, and it is being.

The difference between this unquestionable reality and the classic experience of paying protection money to the mafioso is one of degree alone. The basic principle is exactly the same.

In turn, this is why I’ve always advocated that independent business owners have only one true path if they wish to protect and advance their interests as stakeholders: join together as indies to create an indie business association, which organizes indies to assist indies. 

As it stands, the city’s current political power-brokers agree publicly that somewhere north of $50 million (it might well be twice that) has been invested during the past few in the general vicinity of downtown … by indies. This outstrips government’s own investments by a huge margin.

What these same political power-brokers won’t concede, at least aloud, is that if the extent of these investments were to be backed by an independent business alliance looking out for its own interests, spheres of influence (read: power) would be altered overnight.

Another simple fact: Among those City Hall operatives currently representing the city downtown, not one has been an entrepreneur, an independent business owner/operator, or anything at all apart from an emissary of political power. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, nor right about it. It’s neuter. However, I’d suggest it’s a telling commentary that people unaware of what indie operators experience are constantly eager to offer advice to those who are.

One undisputed practice that unites all of this:

“divide and conquer”

To gain or maintain power by generating tension among others, especially those less powerful, so that they cannot unite in opposition.

Even as “divide and conquer” occurs downtown insofar as City Hall’s relationships with its constituents are concerned, another factor has disrupted what formerly was a more collegial, egalitarian setting — maybe for the better, maybe not.

I refer to a more opportunistic class of potential investors, less motivated by the entrepreneurial zeal of current stakeholders, and interested primarily in the percentages as they pertain to profitability. Power is money, and money talks. Speaking only for myself, I’m forever suspicious of talking about money, and money alone.

But being divided and lacking a common vision is an invitation to those viewing what we’ve built as a vehicle for profit, absent the equity so many smallholders have invested along with their cash.

My conclusion is that NA Social is like a band that came along, had some hits, played some shows, then disappeared again. Comebacks are forever possible, but as I can say from personal experience, the sole necessary ingredient for a comeback is going away.

Anyone desiring independence during at a time when the chosen and anointed few typically behave like the Ticketmaster/Live Nation monopoly will find it’s not easy. Stop allowing yourselves to be divided and conquered by those who derive their power from your labors. They can’t do it on their own, so why allow them to charge you so that they claim credit?

And I’m not talking about DNA, either. Those favoring an equitable distribution of power must begin by organizing themselves, so as to achieve it.