Thursday, October 3, 2013

Trolling for Advance Sites

Advance voting's biggest nemesis?

It's optimism.

Remember, this blog takes the perspective of the election administrator, not politicos.  The optimism to which I'm referring is the optimism of landlords that their vacant space will not remain vacant.

People's Exhibit A is a shopping area near my home.  The area, at 75th and Quivira, is well-located and convenient.  The shopping center is huge. 

It's also been nearly empty for five years.

We approached the leasing agents in 2007, for 2008.  We explained that we would pay rent for space and that, in November, we would be bringing in 15,000 visitors to the shopping center over a two-week period.  Surely some of them would stay and shop at the bookstore, buy a pizza, or have coffee at Starbuck's.

At one point, we were offered a tiny little sliver of a shop that would house only about 15 voting machines.  We wanted a bigger space and were told that there were plans in the works for all of the other empty storefronts.

We heard stories of the bridal shop becoming an Auto Zone, the grocery store converted to office space, and of all the shops immediately filled with tiny cottage industries.  None of this happened.

When I say these were stories, that's what they were.  They weren't plans.  They were long narratives I listened to as explanations of why we couldn't lease space.

No joke, at one point, the leasing agent of this shopping center explained that there were social issues, too.  "If I lease to you and the KKK comes in wanting space, then I'd have to lease to them," he said.

Really?  That's how your mind works?

If there's ever a signal during a conversation that "we're through here," that was it, but he said this before waxing another 30 minutes about how he knew better than the owners what would work in the (still empty) shopping center.

This brings up one of the issues with advance voting space.  We don't have a team of lease negotiators, we're a small staff, and we have to negotiate these in our spare time.

Often, this is a linear process, where we get a nibble and spend a couple of weeks trying to secure a site, only later finding out that the landlord isn't ready to commit to us.  We look for space that we can have mid-July through mid-November of even years.

It's pointless to begin talking with landlords until January.  Even then, they aren't willing to entertain the idea that the vacant space won't be filled until May or June, and that timeframe is much too late for us to wait hoping for a location.

The Dead Zone (other pictures are at the end
of the post, along with pictures of a thriving
pizza business in the middle of the cement desert).
This particular shopping center has taunted me for years.  After the 2008 election and with the center still empty, I sent the leasing agent (in Dallas) a courtesy copy of a local paper's coverage of massive advance voting turnout at another site.

We watched it empty in 2010 but were happy with our location we found a couple of miles down the road.  2012 came with no new tenants and now we're evaluating locations for 2014.  We're worried we might lose the space we had before, so we noticed new leasing agents on signs at the center and called again.

No return call.

(By the way, we've learned that "new leasing agents" often are the local leasing agents, who in turn talk to the same leasing agents we've dealt with before).

We even identified an old Kmart location that might be better.  Alas, it has the same leasing agent.  Best we can tell, this leasing agent's role is to ensure the locations stay empty.

But this is our advance voting life.

We're nearing the time to get busy identifying sites.  I stress that we pay rent (we don't really have the budget for that, but we get how the world works and we aren't expecting it to be free).

Our main competitor for space is Halloween.  We're often bumped by temporary costume stores.

If such a store opens in the tumbleweed zone up from house, that simply will validate that the leasing agent does return phone calls, just selectively.

Or, maybe we can partner with Halloween stores (as long as they greet voters on the way out, to be compliant with state law).  As the economy has improved, landlord optimism is likely to improve as well.  There is less space available now than when we started looking in 2007.

It's a bad combination, this and our polling place situation.  We just got word yesterday that we've lost several schools as polling places because of construction (but really, safety).  I'll post on that soon.

The oasis of traffic, at a family pizza restaurant.