Michael Palazzi wondered what sort of higher power was making officials in tiny Agawam, Mass., behave so badly. Now he realizes it was Dan Snyder.
“I’ve been in Agawam my whole life,” he says. “Grew up here, played sports here. I know everybody. But something strange is going on here now.”
Agawam is a farming community with a population of about 28,000, which balloons in the summertime with the opening of the amusement park, now known as Six Flags New England.
Snyder became chairman of the board for Six Flags in late 2005. The goings-on in Agawam show that he intends to burden the rest of the country, and probably the world, with the same sort of gouging, er, revenue-enhancement strategies that infuriate his Redskins customers.
Take, for example, parking. The fees at FedExField are legendary: ESPN reported this week that Snyder’s minimum $35 per car charge for Redskins games is nearly twice the NFL average.
Rates at all Six Flags lots have skyrocketed since Snyder’s ascension to chief at about the same pace as stock in the amusement chain has fallen. At the Agawam facility, parking now costs from $15 to $30.
The Six Flags rate hikes sucked for roller-coaster enthusiasts but were good for some Agawam businessmen, including Palazzi. He owns and operates a storage facility next to the Six Flags–owned parking lots and also owns a small strip mall on the property adjoining his business.
For the 20 years prior to Snyder’s takeover of the amusement park chain, Palazzi had been charging the park’s customers to park in his lot, which shortens their walk to the park entrance and saves them money. At the beginning of the park’s 2007 season, he was charging $10 on his lot, which he says gave parkers a walk equivalent in distance to Six Flags’ premium lots. He’d average about 100 cars a day during the summer months.
“The traffic and congestion when the park’s open has always cost me and the tenants [of the strip center] customers—nobody wants to get into big lines of traffic to come to my storage facility—so [parking cars] was a way to make up for the loss of customers,” he says.
But a few months ago, Palazzi received notice of several $100 fines for allegedly parking cars on his lot without a permit. He contested the fines in court.
“I pointed out that my property is commercially zoned, and my permits are to store cars and boats there,” he says. “So parking cars is what I do for a living. I couldn’t believe I was getting the tickets, and the judge couldn’t either. I’m thinking, What the hell is going on here?”
Those fines were thrown out. But the Agawam town council immediately got to work on amending the town code to essentially prevent Six Flags customers from parking anywhere but in Six Flags–owned lots.
Richard Cohen, Agawam’s mayor, lobbied publicly and privately for the parking ban.
The heaviest hitter on the pro-ban team, however, was Mark Shapiro, a Snyder associate who was named Six Flags president and CEO after the takeover. Shapiro personally traveled to Agawam to push for the ban at town meetings. Shapiro claimed the ban would protect local residents and Six Flags customers from traffic injuries.
The public safety pitch didn’t make any sense to those hit hardest by the ban.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and there hasn’t been a single safety incident—not one —with people coming from my lot or anybody else’s lot and going to Six Flags,” says Palazzi. “Shapiro flies in here and says that this is about safety. He’s concerned about public safety, so nobody can park anywhere but where Six Flags can charge them. If this is really about the safety of people here, why would somebody in Shapiro’s position even get involved?…I told Shapiro that if he was really concerned about safety of people at Six Flags, he should look internally and maybe stop kids from getting their [feet] chopped off. Because nobody’s getting hurt in our parking lots.” (In June, a Six Flags patron in Kentucky lost her feet when a cable snapped on a ride called the Superman Tower of Power.)
Tony Cirillo, a businessman in Agawam who had been parking 100 cars a day on his lot adjacent to Six Flags before the ban kicked in, seconds Palazzi’s emotion. “This was never about safety,” Cirillo says. “That guy Shapiro knows it, but he actually heckled me [at a hearing], called me ‘pathetic.’ He gets up in his $2,000 suit and thinks he can just take advantage of people here. He’s just a stooge for Dan Snyder.”
J.P. Szymkowicz, a local attorney, knows all about bogus safety arguments being used to justify bogus parking bans at Snyder-owned entities. Szymkowicz filed a suit on behalf of Redskins season ticketholders in 2004 to stop the team and Prince George’s County officials from preventing pedestrian traffic into FedExField.
That ban had been put in place in 2000—a year after Snyder took control of the team—to stop fans from parking at Landover Mall.
Szymkowicz argued that the ban was illegal and only intended to force cars to pay Snyder’s parking fees. He brought in experts, including the police officer who handled pedestrian traffic at Camden Yards, which, unlike FedExField, is an urban venue bordering a major thoroughfare, to testify that pedestrian traffic can be handled safely at stadiums where traffic conditions are a lot less safe than those at Snyder’s venue.
Szymkowicz won. The Redskins were forced to allow folks to walk into games without paying Snyder a dime for parking.
“They said it was a safety issue,” Szymkowicz says. “It wasn’t a safety issue.”
Palazzi and Cirillo have both hired attorneys and, after having their applications for parking permits under the new law denied, are planning to sue.
“At first our beef was just with the town,” says Kevin Maynard, Palazzi’s lawyer. “Now we’re going to have to start looking at Six Flags.”
Six Flags spokesperson Wendy Goldberg says the company views the matter as closed. “It’s a
local safety issue that was effectively handled in the community,” she says.
Agawam Council President Donald Rheault isn’t so sure the issue is dead. Rheault says that he and other councilmembers “thought we were acting in good faith” when Six Flags approached town officials to push for the parking ban. Rheault confesses, however, that he’s having second thoughts about having helped to turn the amusement park chain’s request into law.
“Six Flags came and presented what seemed to be a logical reason to address the issue, and we did address the issue,” he says. “But some of these businesses have legitimate gripes, and I feel they should be granted permits [to continue parking cars]. Now, I’m not sure I would have supported it the way that it was presented.”
The Agawam mayor, however, doesn’t seem close to ready to change his stance.
“We work very well with Six Flags, and they work very well to keep traffic safe and people safe,” Cohen says. “We want everybody to park cars on the same side of the street.”
Cohen admits, however, that, as Palazzi says, there have been no safety incidents regarding pedestrians walking to the park from the unsanctioned lots in the last 20 years. Yet when it is pointed out that Palazzi’s property is on the same side of the street as the Six Flags lots, Cohen shouts “Don’t talk down to me!” and hangs up.