A veteran organizer of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade is promising to meet with downtown merchants who complained to the Oklahoma City Council on Tuesday the annual festivities are disrupting their businesses.
Steve Schlegel, owner with Schlegel Bicycles, 900 N Broadway, pleaded with the Oklahoma City Council to reconsider next week's parade route to prevent hardships for the growing number of retailers along Automobile Alley.
“Based on our past years' experience, the parade is very detrimental to our businesses,” Schlegel said. “There has been a lack of communications from this specific event.”
The Oklahoma City Council unanimously approved the parade application despite the objections.
Schlegel said he and other merchants embrace the holiday celebrations honoring the civil rights legend but added the street closings, and the hours the streets are shut down, are challenging.
“It will cause me a $5,000 to $10,000 loss of revenue,” Schlegel said. “We've had issue of crowd control at our stores. Broadway Wine Merchants has had incidents of being verbally harassed.”
Roosevelt Milton, a longtime civil rights organizer, said he's eager to improve communications with area merchants and agreed discussions shouldn't be attempted just a few weeks before the 2014 parade.
“We hope to move it next year so it won't cause as many problems for the merchants as it does now,” Milton said. “We're going to meet with them, avail ourselves to them earlier so they can know what's going on. And we'll have more communication than just in the last month.”
The assurance follows reports given to the city council that they were unable to get such changes in advance of the 2013 parade, which will be held on Monday.
Police Chief Bill Citty and city permit staff informed the council they unsuccessfully attempted to draw up alternate routes with parade organizers over the past few months.
“We looked at a variety of routes through the downtown area trying not to displace the parade significantly,” he said. “We did come up with some alternatives. We met with organizers of the parade on several occasions. Those recommendations were what they felt were not acceptable.”
Citty told the council “historical” considerations were cited by parade organizers in declining to change the route.
Skip Kelly, the only black member of the city council, said he shared concerns about the parade's operation, adding a few years ago a child was almost killed trying to catch candy being thrown by drivers of parade vehicles.
“This is a very sensitive issue,” Kelly said. “I'm not going to take light of it — I know when I walk to any business and they are trying to do business, I'm respectful of that business. I also know that when I'm faced with any person who is an African-American and they hear about this conversation today, they will ask ‘What did you do, what did you say about MLK?'”
Kelly called on all involved parties to discuss years of complaints about the parade's operations, and to no longer use fear to “hide behind the reality of what's there.”
“It wouldn't take a lot of compromising and sitting down with everybody to make everyone realize what is the purpose of the celebration,” Kelly said. “I think we put an undue burden on the police department and an undue burden on staff. It's due to us not taking the time to bring everybody to the table to realize the components of the parade itself.”
Milton responded that the parade organizers have been flexible over the years and staged four changes in parade routes over the past several years. He said the parade, once held at the state Capitol, was moved downtown to increase participation — an effort that paid off with annual attendance averaging 25,000 to 35,000 people.
“A lot of people think we're the reddest state in the country, and you hear ‘Are there any black people there?' type questions from people like Charles Barkley,” Milton said. “So this is good for Oklahoma City.”
Milton said his main concern is that any new parade route still incorporate historic sites in the city's civil rights movement, including the Calvary Baptist Church, which once hosted King; Bricktown, once home to the all black Douglass High School in the early to mid-20th century; Deep Deuce, the one-time black business district; and Robinson Avenue, where key lunch counter sit-in protests were staged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“If we have to move the route again, we will,” Milton said. “But we don't want to move it to where it doesn't involve our cultural history. … We need to iron out any issues, address problems and have a good showing.”