Bicycle shop owners critical of on-campus bike repair shop
BLACKSBURG — The owners of two businesses in direct competition with one another have joined forces to take on what they describe as Virginia Tech’s overreach into Blacksburg’s small-business community.
The owners of Bike Barn and Hokie Spokes, two downtown bicycle shops, say Virginia Tech’s hiring of an on-campus bicycle technician/mechanic is cutting into their profits derived from bicycle repair labor charges.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech officials say they are simply trying to promote alternative transportation on campus, which in the long term should help parking and traffic – and increase business to local bicycle shops.
The controversy started after the Hokie Bike Hub opened in August 2013. Located on campus in the Perry Street parking garage, the hub is a free bicycle information and repair shop for Virginia Tech students, faculty and staff. It contains bicycle tools of a far greater variety than the unmanned Fix-It stations across campus and employs a full-time bicycle technician who offers free repair advice.
Blake Aldridge and Johnny Garrett, two of the three owners of Bike Barn, and Dave Abraham, owner of Hokie Spokes, said they don’t mind the free access to repair tools. What bothers them is the hiring of a technician, who according to campus officials does not personally work on bikes but offers repair advice and instruction.
“We count on a minimum of 12 percent labor to keep Scott (Owens, the Bike Barn mechanic) in a job,” Garrett said. “We couldn’t possible stay open without our labor.”
Aldridge said approximately 40 percent of the Bike Barn’s business comes from Virginia Tech students and employees. Abraham said Hokie Spokes receives up to two-thirds of its business from the college community.
“Don’t get me wrong. We get a lot of business from Virginia Tech,” Aldridge said. “But what they’re doing just isn’t fair.”
Both shops said income from labor charges has decreased since the bike hub opened.
“A guy came in recently and bought a pretty complicated part called a derailleur,” Garrett said. “A common person could not install that part. We said ‘hey, we can put that on for you.’ He said no, that he was taking it over to the bike hub to put it on there.”
Garrett said the labor charge to install the part would have been approximately $30.
Blacksburg has a third bicycle shop, East Coasters, which is the furthest away from campus on 1301 N. Main St. Managers of the shop, which also operates a Roanoke location, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“We really don’t want to comment on either side,” said employee Pete Morrow over the phone on Tuesday. “We support cycling and we’re running a business.”
Bob Spieldenner, the communications manager for Administrative Services at Virginia Tech, said several Virginia Tech officials were surprised about the criticism directed at the program.
“Our goal is to create a bike culture on campus,” Spieldenner said. “When people come into the bike hub, we provide them with a list of local bike shops where they can shop.”
Virginia Tech calls the position an “alternative transportation assistant” who, according to the job description, needs to have “bike maintenance and bike mechanic skills.”
“The only thing he may do is help them lift the bicycle (onto the repair stand),” Spieldenner said. “Other than that, he isn’t supposed to work on the bikes.”
Abraham calls the position by a different title – mechanic – and said he has bike hub promotional literature that promotes “one-on-one maintenance sessions with the hub’s bike mechanic.”
The owners of both shops said they have emailed State Delegates Joseph Yost (R-Pearisburg) and Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg) but have heard nothing back. Garrett emailed Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands on June 26, but also got no reply.
The two shop owners have enlisted the help of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition, a Reston-based nonprofit coalition of businesses, trade associations and organizations that, according to its website (www.governmentcompetition.org), is critical of “unfair government sponsored competition.”
According to BCFC President John Palatiello, Virginia passed a Government Competition Act in 1995 (SB 994) that, according to the bill’s language, created the Commonwealth Competition Council “to examine and promote the privatization of government-provided or government-produced programs and services.”
The council was disbanded during the term of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), but Palatiello said the 1995 statute might have applications in this case.
“We’re exploring what options they (bicycle shop owners) have under that statute,” Palatiello said.
Spieldenner said Hokie Bike Hub does not offer any free parts or goods – not even a small tire patch or a dab of glue – and has no plans to either give away or sell bicycle-related products in the future.
“The only thing we offer may be some degreaser or chain lube, but that’s it,” he said.
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond started a similar shop called VCU RamBikes (www.bikes.vcu.edu). Phone messages left last week at RamBikes had not been returned as of press time.
From Turner Place (for dining) to Preston Inn (for accommodations and meeting space), Virginia Tech has for decades sponsored enterprises in competition with local business.
“The issue here is, what is the mission of Virginia Tech and its core responsibility? We would argue that it’s to educate students,” Palatiello said. “Where do you draw the line between serving the students on one hand and eroding the very tax base that the state is relying upon?”
Abraham, Aldridge and Garrett all said they applaud Virginia Tech’s efforts to be more environmentally friendly, but the impact on their businesses – which they say operate on very small profit margins – could be devastating.
“I just paid my state sales tax, which is 5.3 percent, which supports Virginia, which supports Virginia Tech. What does Virginia Tech do? They open a bicycle shop,” Abraham said. “The goal to promote cycling is admirable, but it’s not fair. The end does not justify the means.”
“I don’t consider myself right wing,” Aldridge said, “but when it comes to impacting your income and small business, you have to make a stand.”