Festival Fallout

SPARKcon

Local businesses feel the heat from a heavy schedule of events downtown.

Fall is festival season in Raleigh and with it comes colorful sidewalk drawings, twangs of bluegrass music, concerts and club hopping, and motorcycle stunt shows—and hundreds of thousands of people.

As we reported last month, events can pump millions of new dollars into the local economy.

But with festivals come street closures, dump trucks and 18-wheelers, and folks heading downtown to enjoy themselves who aren’t necessarily shopping or eating at restaurants. People working at downtown businesses struggle to find parking, and people commuting to downtown when festivals are setting up have trouble getting to work, or to court, or to wherever else they have to go to go about their business.

“We have certainly heard from some merchants that there are a lot of street closures and there’s a pretty heavy event schedule in downtown,” says Bill King, the director of planning and economic development for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “For some merchants, they feel like that makes it challenging.”

Raleigh Magazine spoke to several downtown business owners about festivals and while most said they enjoy them and want them to stay, they have lots of ideas of how to tweak events to ensure other businesses and theirs don’t suffer.

“What do you do when another big festival wants to come downtown,” wonders Brent Francese, the co-owner of Runologie on Hillsborough Street. “As the events grow, Fayetteville Street is going to get maxed out. It’s a great problem that Raleigh didn’t have 15 years ago. There’s a lot of opportunity, but we’ve got to make moves and think about this stuff now.”

Francese says that while Runologie’s sales have increased in each of the three years the store has been open, he typically notices a dip in sales around September. That’s not normal, he says, as people tend to buy more outdoor exercise gear as temperatures cool down.

Pam Blondin, owner of Deco and Deco Home on Hargett Street, says the net effect of festivals on her businesses in September is neutral.

“It’s definitely a misnomer that festivals boost business; that’s just not the case,” Blondin says. “We have two festivals where business is down, we get more walk-ins who don’t make purchases. Often we’ll have a garbage truck or an 18-wheeler in front of the store, which is not ideal if the truck is smelly and noisy.”

It’s not just shops feeling the heat. Downtown restaurants have been known to close their doors during some event weekends, with owners determining it’s just not worth the cost of opening at all. Paul Siler, who owns Garland, Kings and Neptune’s with his wife, Cheetie Kumar, says his employees have a difficult time finding parking, and events setting up on weekday evenings can kill business and downtown activity in general.

“It is extremely stressful,” Siler says. “When they shut streets down on a Thursday night, it’s like a bizarro ghost town, it’s crazy. The streets are closed, spotlights and tents are set up and it’s surreal, no one’s walking around.”

Outreach from organizers

It’s been five years or so since downtown, and Fayetteville Street especially, became saturated with festivals, especially in September. For this last year, however, organizers for festivals including SPARKcon, Capital City Bike Fest and Hopscotch met with local business owners at Trophy Brewing beforehand for a listening session. They took proactive measures to help ensure downtown businesses wouldn’t lose sales during their events.

Hopscotch organizers opened up the side streets around Fayetteville—Martin, Hargett and Davie Streets—for traffic and parking, as they had done in years before. SPARKcon’s organizers created marketing materials, including signs, a map and a guide that volunteers handed out to festival goers, directing people to local shops, bars and restaurants that weren’t necessarily on the footprint of the art festival itself. SPARKcon also worked with businesses, such as Bittersweet and Ruby Deluxe, to host festival events in their spaces, a model that Hopscotch has used since its outset.

“The map and guides were really popular,” says Brandon Cordrey, a SPARKcon organizer and the executive director of downtown’s Visual Art Exchange. “We helped push people into those places and it’s such a small thing, but it makes for a world of positive feedback.”

Bike Fest organizers added maps listing every downtown restaurant and retailer to their festival’s app and website and offered a 25 percent discount and merchandise at the Ray Price Harley Davidson store to customers who took selfies at local businesses.

Small changes can help

“It’s not that visitors attending Bike Fest don’t want to go to local businesses,” says Scott Misner, a Bike Fest organizer. “We just needed to find a way to connect the bikers to the businesses and the businesses to the bikers.”

As for regulars who avoid downtown during festivals over concerns about parking or street closures, Jennifer Martin, the executive director of Shop Local Raleigh, says there are ways businesses can incentivize their customers to come downtown and visit their stores or eat or drink at their restaurant or bar. For example, make creative use of the postcards the city mails to residents to notify them of events and street closures, or give out coupons at the event.

“Use social media and advertise to anyone who brings that postcard free parking or a cup of hot chocolate or glass of champagne,” says Martin, who herself organizes springtime’s Brewgaloo and the Christmas Parade. “I think the postcard has a lot of potential use as a win to help the market.”

Garland’s Siler says keeping side streets open so employees can access parking—and customers, delivery trucks and bands can access businesses—would be helpful. He says employing a city police officer to staff intersections, instead of using trucks to block traffic, would be better, too, and, he says, setup for events should be limited to immediately before the event is scheduled to begin, not a whole day or night before.

Planning for the future

Small changes like these can go a long way but what happens can when, as Runologie’s Francese says, Fayetteville Street gets maxed out? What happens when Hopscotch grows to the size of Bonnaroo, or what if Raleigh wants to bring on another big, high-profile music or arts festival?

“We need to learn to utilize all of our spaces downtown,” Francese says. “We have a lot of great urban spaces where it will make sense to host stuff down the road.”

He cites Dix Park, currently undergoing a redesign process, as well as Chavis Park which is slated for upgrades too. Deco’s Blondin adds that the Warehouse District, Moore and Nash Squares and, potentially, the Capitol grounds are other underutilized spaces, waiting for someone to take the lead on hosting events there.

Blondin is on the city’s Special Events Task Force, composed of city planners and staff and representatives from the business community who make suggestions to prospective event organizers. The committee can make recommendations to approve or deny any event but ultimately, it’s the city’s call.

Blondin and Francese say the city has a role to play in scheduling events so that they’re not all in one place, weekend after weekend, and that it should look at how festivals affect residents who need to get downtown for work or other business when events are going on. In 2014, the city introduced a moratorium on downtown road races; though no one says they want to see a moratorium on downtown festivals, all agree there are ways to plan them smarter.

“It’s no one’s fault, but there is no mechanism [for the task force] to say to festival organizers, ‘Hey, what are you trying to accomplish here,’” Blondin says. “I would love to see a limit on how many events there are in any specific location in a year. It makes the events less special if they’re in the same place every single weekend. That’s a shame because we have a cool city, and there is room to try things elsewhere.”

For its part, the DRA is also studying foot traffic during festival season using body heat-activated sensor technology in five downtown stores. The data collected will demonstrate how foot traffic compares in September to other months in the summer and fall and will be available early next year.

King says the DRA is looking at peer cities, too, to see how places like Austin, Nashville and Atlanta schedule and host events. And, while it will be a few more years before Dix Park has enough infrastructure to host a large event, King says, right now, a little creativity and communication is key.

“If restaurants like Garland are feeling pain from festivals, that’s a problem,” King says. “Downtown Raleigh needs more Garlands. We need to reach residents during festivals and say, ‘Here is what’s going on in the businesses. They’re not closed. Go check them out.”

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