JAMESTOWN – The executive director of the National Comedy Center says organization wants what’s best for the Jamestown community and said that everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goal.
Journey Gunderson appeared during the Jamestown City Council’s Monday night virtual work session to address concerns that were raised the previous week regarding the NCC Gift Shop, located in the former Jamestown Gateway Train Station, no longer wanting to serve as a Ward 3 Polling site for Primary and Election Day.
“We earnestly believe that it is possible that cultural institutions like our’s, as nonprofits, may have a civic responsibility to serve as a polling site if it can be done without significant hardship to its operation,” Gunderson said. “We’re very willing to sit down with the (Chautauqua County) Board of Elections commissioners and work through this. We want to find a way forward and to resolve the polling site issue quickly and amicably and do, ultimately, what is best for the residents of Ward 3.”
Gunderson added, however, that the NCC does have some concerns and issues to work through. That includes getting clarity from the New York State Board of Elections about whether or not voting can take place at a location that also holds a state liquor license, since that appears to be prohibited in state election law. She said the NCC has reached out for clarification and is awaiting a response.
It’s worth nothing that there are other voting locations across New York State that also hold liquor licenses, including in Cattaraugus County, where the New Albion District 1 Polling Site as at the Cattaraugus Fireman’s Club, which has a bar. Meanwhile in Stueben County, three voting districts in Hornell all vote at the Hornell VFW, while two district in Corning vote at the American Legion. And in Chemung County, voting in Horseheads is held in an Elks Lodge, while voting in Elmira is conducted at the Italian American Veterans Club.
It’s not known if a possible State Board of Elections ruling prohibiting the NCC from being a polling site due to its liquor license would also set a precedent and also impact those other polling sites around the state.
OTHER CONCERNS BESIDES SERVING LIQUOR
Beyond the liquor license, Gunderson said there are other factors that come into play that involve the NCC’s request to relocate the polling site. She said primary voting occurs in June, near the peak of the city’s tourism season and that severely compromises the NCC’s ability to retain retail operations.
She also said that during the pandemic, on-site election inspectors can not force a voter to wear a mask to vote, although the NCC currently requires masks for all patrons who come into the facility. That’s another concern moving forward, especially for 2021 and maybe even next year as well.
“This compromises our ‘Laugh Safe’ health and safety program, and that’s a pretty integral part of our brand and communication to the public about making a visit right now. If guests don’t feel safe and fully protected at the Comedy Center, then the just won’t visit,” Gunderson said.
Gunderson also responded to concerns from some council members and citizens about the NCC’s obligation to keep the former train station space available for public use, due to a multi-million dollar Federal Transportation Grant the building received for its renovation 10 years ago.
“We make that space more accessible to the public than it ever was prior to the National Comedy Center’s operation of it,” Gunderson said. “There was a comment made, and I shudder to even repeat it, that Comedy Center deemed constituents of Ward 3 – not my words but someone on the council – ‘not good enough to come through our doors.’ The opposite is true. The assertion was also made last week, and it ended up in the press, that we don’t provide the public access. That is 100% factually inaccurate.”
Gunderson said the NCC actually wants residents to come into the facility and experience all it has to offer, and that’s evident by the discounts it offers to local residents.
But Gunderson added that despite the challenges the NCC faces with hosting the Ward 3 polling location, it would be willing to continue serving as a location if the State Board of Elections says it is okay.
Following Gunderson’s comments, members of the city council were able to ask questions of her.
Ward 3 council woman Vickye James, who mentioned last week there is a perception that residents feel unwelcome, doubled down on her comment, saying regardless of what the NCC is trying to do, the negative perception from residents still exists.
“My constituents do not feel welcome. That is the perception. The truth may be something different but that is the perception,” James said. “I don’t know if a lot of people know about the discounts. Again, it could be miscommunication. Is that communicated well? Do people know that? I don’t think it’s being communicated well to the community.”
James also noted that because of the Ward 3 polling location being moved several different times during the past two decades, it only adds to residents feeling displaced and unwelcome.
Gunderson acknowledged James’ concerns and said the NCC would work to better engage with those residents so they no longer feel unwanted or unwelcome.
Councilman at Large Jeffrey Russell also asked several questions regarding the requirements the NCC has to adhere to in order to comply with the federal grant stipulations – including the building serving as a transportation hub for the public.
Gunderson responded by saying that the CARTS buses operated by the county relocated their downtown hub because of periodic closing on 2nd street in front of the train station throughout the year due to events. That created inconsistencies in the CARTS bus schedule, and that’s why the CARTS hub was moved to a new location, based on a decision by the county and not because the NCC demanded they relocate, as some in the community have suggested.
After an hour of discussion, the council wrapped up its portion of the meeting with Gunderson. Council president Tony Dolce said the concerns and subsequent discussion on the issue does have a silver lining.
“The Comedy Center is great for Jamestown and we want to partner with them and we want this to be a positive situation for them and for the city of Jamestown, both financially and just from a standpoint of community building,” Dolce said.