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Downtown businesses have mixed feelings about Roots 'N' Blues

Sunday, July 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
People walk down a tent-lined Eighth Street on Sept. 7, 2007, during the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival.

COLUMBIA — Sarah Cyr's Wine Cellar and Bistro on Cherry Street is right where the action is during the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival. But like many restaurant owners, she said the festival hurts her business.

“When you have 60,000 people out there, you would think that would bring a lot of people in,” said Cyr, the Wine Cellar’s co-owner. Rather, she said, the event “completely kills” business. She guesses she’ll lose a quarter of her revenue that weekend.

Other council agenda items

The Columbia City Council will have a lot on its plate when it meets Monday night. Along with a vote on street closures and alcohol policies needed for the Roots 'n' Blues Festival, it is slated to decide several other matters.

  •  Tax-increment financing

Applications from the owners of The Tiger Hotel and Trittenbach Development for tax-increment financing will be up for review and public hearings.

The Tiger Hotel owners are seeking $1.7 million in TIF assistance to convert the building to a “boutique hotel.” Meanwhile, Nathan and Jonathan Odle of Trittenbach are seeking $3.3 million in TIF aid for a $17 million redevelopment of property at Tenth and Locust streets. They hope to build a five- to eight-story building that would include a grocery store, office space and 58 residential apartments.

  •  Waste-water treatment plant

The council will hold a public hearing on plans to proceed with a $64.4 million expansion of the waste-water treatment plant. The project is part of a package of projects approved by voters as part of a bond issue in April 2008. The plan includes $4.6 million in bid alternatives for which the city is seeking federal stimulus money.

  • Citizen Review Board

The council will vote on whether to establish a citizen review board for the Columbia Police Department.



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This year’s festival is scheduled for Sept. 25 and 26. Cyr is among several downtown restaurant owners who have complained that the two-year-old festival is a detriment to their businesses. Although they recognize its popularity and its economic value to the city, they wish Thumper Entertainment, the festival’s organizer, would give them more of a role in the planning.

And it’s not just businesses who are questioning the festival. Thumper’s plans to sell tickets this year for access to the heart of the festival have raised some hackles, and the City Council has questioned whether the public investment is worthwhile.

Steve Sweitzer, chief creative officer for Woodruff Sweitzer, which is affiliated with Thumper, said the group is trying to help businesses tie into the festival and hopes to find a way to make it beneficial for all of downtown.

"The key thing here is that Thumper Entertainment wants very much for everyone to be successful," Sweitzer said.

Singin’ the blues or loving them?

Not every downtown business owner is complaining about Roots 'N' Blues. Jay Rader, general manger of Bengals Bar and Grill, is excited about it after seeing a spike in foot traffic at his bar last year.

“Our revenue was just like a home game for us,” he said.

The difference between Cyr and Rader: Bengal’s was just outside the festival’s official boundaries last year, across Sixth Street from Peace Park. Cyr and other owners of restaurants within the festival's footprint are complaining not only about lost revenue, but also about the proposed street closures and alcohol policies.

Over the past two years, the festival has caused trouble for Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, general manager Lance Wood said. He said the street closures block access to his parking lot.

“It’s getting a little old,” Wood said.

Just down the street, Déjà Vu managing partner Matt Istwan said he has had similar problems.

“Our customers can’t get to us because of the street closures,” he said. “I’m not here to squash the event. (I'm asking Thumper) simply try to work with us so we know what we can and cannot do to make up for the lost income.”

Wood and Cyr said Thumper is doing too little to help them think of creative solutions. Cyr said she tried early this year to offer her thoughts but got no response.

Sweitzer said Thumper has tried to be as inclusive as possible.

“I think we've done everything we can to bring them up to speed when the timing's been appropriate," Sweitzer said.

Tyler Woodsome, owner of Forge and Vine Grill, has the unique problem of being inside the proposed ticketed area.

“If everyone is concentrated in front of our restaurant, we’ll be pretty good,” he said, adding that he’s working on ways to bring more traffic through the back door.

Last year, Flat Branch tried running a beer garden to boost sales, but Wood said it only managed to break even.

“It kind of leaves a lot of businesses with a bad taste in their mouth,” Wood said.

For Bengals, Rader said showing the MU football game on a 35-foot television screen was all it took. The bar took advantage of its location behind one of the main stages and attracted customers who wanted to listen without the crowd.

“It worked out really well for us,” Rader said, estimating there were about 1,000 people on his property that night.

Tobias Epsten, general manager of Shakespeare’s Pizza, said business during the festival is like that of a typical Saturday.

“Fortunately for us, no one is selling pizza at the festival,” he said.

Mary Wilkerson, a Special Business District board member, will host an Aug. 4 seminar offering 21 ideas for how businesses can capitalize on the festival crowd. For example, she said, businesses with parking lots can turn them into outdoor eating and music areas. Or those worried about parking can rent a golf cart and shuttle people to their establishment.

"It does take some time," she said. "… It's all about creativity."

Boon or bust?

Thumper has argued to the City Council that the festival's economic impact on the city is in the millions of dollars.

In an April 4 e-mail from Woodruff Sweitzer, the company asked the city to waive charges for city services during the 2008 festival, based on an estimated economic impact to the community of $7 million in 2007 and $7.8 million in 2008.

“It's pretty fair to ask for city services when millions of dollars are being spent," Sweitzer said. In the end, though, Thumper just two weeks ago paid the $38,000 it owed the city from last year. The city provided those services at a discount.

James Kaufman of MU's Division of Applied Social Sciences ran the economic analyses as a favor for one of Thumper's employees. His model estimated economic impact using attendance assumptions provided by Thumper.

Last year, the festival's attendance was estimated at 120,000, a number that Thumper said was provided by the Columbia Police Department. Kaufman’s model indicates that 125,000 people — 65 percent of them from outside Boone County — would have to attend the festival this year to generate a $7.8 million impact.

Zim Schwartze, interim Joint Communications director for the police department, was the acting Community Operations Division commander during the 2008 festival. It was her understanding that Thumper would analyze aerial photos to get a more accurate crowd estimate, but she never heard back. The 120,000 number was just a guess, she said.

"That was a pure estimate that got blown out of proportion," Schwartze said.

While the City Council on Monday night is expected to pass the street closures and open-container exemptions the festival needs, the issue of city services remains subject to negotiation. Thumper is asking Columbia for a little more than $40,000 worth of services this year.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said ticket proceeds this year should allow Thumper to repay the city quickly.

“I would expect as soon as the festival is over and the accounting is done, the fees would be paid from that revenue and paid promptly," Skala said, adding that he plans to press the issue Monday.

"If they're charging an admission fee, we ought not be using taxpayer dollars. We need to recover our costs," Skala said.

Carol Rhodes of the city manager's office said that the $40,000 is just an estimate and that she hopes to have all the costs negotiated by the second City Council meeting in August.

Free no more

Although the plan to charge admission to some parts of the festival has drawn some public criticism, Sweitzer said it’s critical to the future of the festival.

Tickets will cost $10 for a one-day pass and $15 for a weekend pass if purchased in advance. Those prices will rise to $15 and $25, respectively, on the weekend of the event.

Ticket revenue will be used to cover operational costs, but Sweitzer recognizes that the decision to charge is risky.

“First and foremost, we want to bring the show to town," Sweitzer said. "We’re looking at big-picture, long-term stuff here. It has the potential to make Columbia a destination city.”

Wade said ticketing was a touchy issue — “We want to be comfortable that the process of ticketing will work” — but he plans to vote in favor of the festival proposals on Monday.

Skala said he wants the festival to happen, but his support depends on the answers he gets during the meeting.

"I want to see the festival continue," Skala said. "I think it's important for the city."

Missourian reporter Jacob Barker contributed to this report.


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Comments

Ray Shapiro July 19, 2009 | 4:17 p.m.

And here I thought it was all about the music and good eats.
It's not even about good will or PR anymore.
It's really just all about the money.
(Gee, I miss Thursday night Twilight Festivals.)

(Report Comment)
Bryan Ross July 20, 2009 | 11:59 a.m.

I don't. Towards the end the Twilight Festivals were, at best, no fun; at worst they were so unsafe that I stopped bringing the family.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 20, 2009 | 12:22 p.m.

The old format for the Twilight Festival was both safe and enjoyable. I refer to the days before the powers that be took the main music/performance stage out of the city courthouse circle and began to run two concurrent events, one down at Flat Branch and the other along 9th Street. That was the start of its downfall.
The "managers" of the event monkeyed with a formerly good formula for a community night out, extended it out too far geographically and failed to provide a responsive police presence blanketing the newly extended areas.
Business owners also failed to realize that many residents viewed the festival as a good will gesture and frequented downtown businesses during other times of the week.
Twilight Festival became what it became from ultimate bad decisions and apathy.
Developing the Thursday night Twilight Festival properly would sooner build Columbia into a "destination point" as opposed to a once a year Music/Barbecue event.

(Report Comment)

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