Towed cars leave Eagles fans miffed

As if a double-digit loss in last week's BracketBuster game wasn't bad enough, some Winthrop University men's basketball fans found even more reason for frustration at the end of a cold, rainy night.

Tow trucks hauled six cars from the Cherry Plaza shopping center, where a handful of fans had parked to avoid long waits to enter the Winthrop Coliseum lot nearby.

The trucks were called in by Pet Pros, a pet shop that stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays. Owner Ron Moore believes his customers deserve access to the store's tropical fish, captive-bred reptiles and a $1,000 Amazon parrot named Joshua that can say "Hello."

After the game, an empty space greeted John Peterson where his tan Nissan Altima was supposed to be. Violators had to pay $125 to retrieve their rides.

"That's an awful way for the city or Winthrop to treat people who are trying to support the Eagles!" Peterson wrote in a letter to The Herald. "Talk about fleecing! This beats anything I've ever seen!"

Three factors appear at play in this dustup and others that have persisted for years at Cherry Plaza: A business owner trying to protect his turf, hurried fans who either missed or ignored 'private parking' signs and a tow truck company that says it's just doing a job.

"We don't like doing this," said Christine Shaner, owned of Interstate Towing. "It gets us a lot of flak and a lot of bad publicity. But when a man is trying to make a living and it's his parking lot, that's his place. That's why they call it private property."

A few hours before the game, Pet Pros called Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman to give him advance warning, Hickman said. The shop was fed up with illegal parkers; it says the problem gets especially bad during graduation ceremonies and other big coliseum events.

This is the first time Pet Pros planned a towing operation in advance.

"If it was one customer that spends $600, that's $600 I didn't get," Moore said. "If I don't make those sales, I don't stay here. We're a small business. Times are tough."

That night, store manager Matthew Staub stood in the parking lot holding a cardboard sign that said "customer parking only / will be towed at owners' expense." Six similar, permanent signs are posted in the lot.

Peterson, a 67-year-old Fort Mill retiree attending his first Eagles game, said he noticed no signs when he pulled in. Like others, he hurried into the coliseum, only to see Winthrop lose 60-47 to Davidson.

He stayed polite during the ordeal. In the past, others haven't.

"We were cursed at, threatened," Moore said. "There was just complete disrespect. So we said, 'OK, we'll just tow you from the front of our building. That's what we did."

A similar round of hostilities greeted Shaner after the game: "He called me the B-word," she said of one person who got towed. "I think he used just about every word in the curse-word vocabulary."

The trouble could flare up again. A big crowd is expected Saturday at 4 p.m. when Winthrop hosts UNC Asheville. Next week, the Eagles could host as many as three games in the Big South Conference tournament.

Hickman says the school will open extra parking at the nearby driving range. That didn't happen for the BracketBuster game because recent rains made the grass too muddy.

It'll be up to fans to find legal parking -- or risk getting the hook.