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Ticket to down slide

Sunday, February 26, 2006

ORAN, Mo. -- Lately business owners say the situation in Oran hasn't been too business-friendly.

Not all business owners agree, but many of them point to one man as the root of the problem -- police chief Marc Tragesser.

"A lot of people in this area from out of town have told me they aren't coming to my place because of the police," said one business owner who wished to remain anonymous. "They come to town and spend $8, and when they leave they get a $50 ticket."

The business owner said where he used to see 15 to 20 customers a day, some days he now sits around without having a single customer.

"I don't know how long any of us can go on," he said.

When the new chief took over in late July for Howard Stevens, who held the post for more than 30 years, tensions immediately developed. Locals started to decry Tragesser's enforcement style -- his department has issued more than 120 citations from late July through mid-January -- and his attitude. In contrast, Stevens wrote only a handful of tickets in the few years before he retired.

Instead of working with locals, Tragesser acted like an adversary, said those who oppose him. Rumors started to fly, and soon the town was torn between the chief's supporters and detractors.

These days Oran has become a community wary of the outside attention the headlines about the battle have brought. Many residents, business owners and even city council members won't comment on the situation to the media.

Some business owners support the chief, saying the increased number of patrol hours run by his department have helped curb crime.

Mary, who wished her last name be omitted, runs a video store with her family. She said before Tragesser, her store had been broken into several times at night. But since the chief started night patrols and checked on businesses after hours, she said, that no longer happens.

A group of 28 business owners called the Oran Business Betterment Association recently approached the city council, in closed session, to talk about the decline in business.

Judi Henson, co-owner of the Oran Kwik Stop, said the jury is still out on whether Tragesser is the cause of the problem. Henson said not all business owners blame Tragesser, just the majority, but she was one of those who made the closed-door presentation to the council.

In a letter to the council association president Michael McVay represented the majority opinion of the group, directly blaming Tragesser for the town's economic problems.

To back up their arguments the group used sales tax figures that show some decline after Tragesser came to town. However, the decline was in line with previous years.

Tragesser, Mayor Tom Urhahn and several members of the city council think people are afraid to come to Oran because of rumors they've heard, not because of anything Tragesser has actually done.

In a log of citations furnished by the police department, 28 of the more than 120 citations issued through mid-January were for speeding. In those citations the smallest difference logged between driver speed and speed limit was 6 mph. Ten of the citations were for driving while intoxicated.

Now the Oran businesses are waiting for sales tax data from other cities to see if a decline has been felt elsewhere. If not, it means Oran is alone is what business owners say is an economic slump.

Meanwhile the city council plans to work with the association to find ways to increase sales that don't involve the removal of a chief -- one who has the support of the council and the mayor.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


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