Protests taking a toll on downtown businesses

Autumn Owens | Weatherford Democrat

Several downtown businesses have closed their doors on some of their busiest days of the week after recent protests over the Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn.

Though downtown Weatherford has drawn large crowds in recent weekends, those crowds have also started to hurt local businesses.

Hundreds of protestors and counter protesters swarmed the Parker County Courthouse and surrounding area for and against the removal of the Confederate statue that sits on the courthouse lawn in late July.

The Parker County commissioners court voted to keep the statue where it sits on July 30, and rumors of an even larger protest took hold of social media last weekend, prompting around 200 individuals armed with guns stationing themselves in the parking lots of downtown Weatherford, forcing some businesses to close.

Elizabeth Louvat owns The Haps, a vintage store off York Avenue, and said the success of downtown businesses is all hinged on the customer experience.

“I don’t represent the shop all of the shop owners, but many of us feel the same way — the success of our businesses relies heavily on being able to create an environment where people feel comfortable. They come into our shop, they feel welcome, we make them happy, they fall in love with our stores and they take pieces of our stores home with them,” Louvat said. “It’s all hinged on the customer experience. We work constantly to create that environment and keeping ourselves happy so we can be receptive to our customers’ needs and we have a really great charming historic backdrop that makes it easy to create these visuals.

“People come from out of town just to visit, but AR-15s just don’t complement what we’re trying to create. It’s not cohesive so people are not coming from out of town and a lot of the locals are not coming because they know what’s going on. Some people from out of town are coming in, seeing it and leaving. It’s definitely been affecting business for sure.”

Miss B’s Antiques and Collectibles Manager Candace Butler said they had to close the business two Saturdays, including Aug. 8, because of the situation.

“We have 50 dealers inside of this mall and we cater to a little bit of an older crowd, so for the protection of them and all of their [products], we’ve had to board up a couple of times and have had to close down — we’ve lost a couple of Saturdays, which are really big days for us,” Butler said. “That affects not just [our owner] but also the dealers, so it has definitely put a crimp in things but [owner] Becky [Tanner] is all about safety first and doesn’t want her cashiers and people that work up here in any kind of danger.

“I actually worked last Friday (Aug. 7), the day before the big one was supposed to happen, and I had people calling from Fort Worth. A lady called saying she brings her mom here all the time and that she was told to call because she heard Weatherford was getting protests — she asked if it was safe to come into town — and so it’s making people fearful to even come to Weatherford now.”

Downtown Cantina took to social media to inform patrons of its closing for lunch on Aug. 8.

“Due to the climate around our area, we have essentially been forced to close for the day,” according to the post. “If we decide to open up for dinner, we will let y’all know.”

Louvat said she did have to shut down early on July 25 and again on Aug. 8, when she took a purposely timed vacation.

“I closed down on [July] 25 after seeing men with automatic rifles walking past my store. The 25th was a near bloodbath. There is no way I will put my customers in harm’s way, so I closed again on [Aug.] 8. Whether the rumors about it being a bigger turnout were true or not, it wasn’t worth the risk,” Louvat said. “This is not just on the police force’s shoulders, it’s the city officials and the county officials and everybody seems to be passing the buck from my perspective.”

On Aug. 8, the courthouse as well as the square were barricaded and blocked off as many law enforcement agencies stood watch over the Confederate statue and manned the parking lots.

Weatherford Police Chief Lance Arnold said his department schedules staff for overtime for planned events in order to minimize the impact on patrol capabilities.

“However, when pop-up events occur, we do have to utilize on-duty patrol officers until we can call more officers to work. Factors like the size of the crowd, counter-protests and traffic conditions determine how many officers need to respond to a pop-up event and thus how much strain we encounter in responding to other calls for service throughout the city,” Arnold said. “There have been no impacts on any services yet, but there are long-term consequences beyond the financial implications. Mandatory overtime to work these events impacts our officers and their families, and can profoundly affect their long-term physical and mental health.”

Parker County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Deputy Danie Huffman said deputies are being assigned protest duties in an off-duty capacity and are receiving overtime pay.

“Our divisions have and will continue to remain at full-staff. For now, deputies are designated for off-duty assignments,” Huffman said. “Although we do not openly discuss plans, preparations, tactics and operations with the public for safety and security reasons, we can assure the public that we intend to continue collaborating with Weatherford police and Texas DPS in the planning of any protest for the safety of all individuals.”

Arnold said the cost of staffing an event can range anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to $15,000.

“The number of staff depends on the anticipated size of the crowds. In addition to police department costs, we may also utilize staff from other city departments like fire and transportation and public works,” Arnold said. “These figures do not include the costs for the sheriff’s office or the Texas Department of Public Safety, and their staffing is similar to ours.”

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Richard Hunter said while they do not discuss operational specifics, their agency will continue to work with local law enforcement.

“DPS continues to work with local law enforcement across the state to ensure the safety of our citizens and property, and to protect those individuals who are exercising their constitutional right to assembly and free speech,” Hunter said. “DPS is continually monitoring events and their impact on public safety across the state. While we do not discuss operational specifics, we will continue to work with our local law enforcement partners, and will adjust resources as needed to ensure public safety needs are met and to combat any potential criminal activity.”

Butler commended law enforcement’s efforts in recent weeks.

“They have been right on top of all of this protest stuff, protecting the businesses and our town,” she said.

Arnold said the department’s priority is the safety of the public, but they remain mindful of the impacts to businesses and citizens.

“With each strategy, we must carefully weigh the balance between safety, inconvenience and other adverse conditions,” Arnold said. “We base our plans on the best intelligence we have at the time and the most appropriate response to the actions of others.”

Louvat said if removing the Confederate statue would restore peace to downtown Weatherford, then that’s what needs to happen.

“The hits just keep coming for us. Anybody that runs a small business knows that it’s already challenging, we’re just becoming exhausted and needlessly stressed,” Louvat said. “I feel that our downtown shouldn’t be used as a battleground. We’re a valuable part of the local economy and I don’t feel like we’re being treated like we’re valuable.

“We’re just kind of in the background while they’re letting people use the land however they see fit but we’re getting caught in the crossfire and we need somebody to stand up for us — enough is enough.”

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