Will Belleville open a German Christmas Market?

News-DemocratJune 28, 2014 

People walk at the Gendarmenmarkt in downtown Berlin. There is a proposal to set up a German Christmas Market in the Public Square to commemorate Belleville's bicentennial year.

AP

— A proposal to set up a German Christmas Market in the Public Square to commemorate Belleville's bicentennial year has upset some downtown merchants.

Organizers of the Belleville Christkindlmarkt believe the unique vendors will draw new shoppers, especially those from Scott Air Force Base who have experienced the holiday festival in Germany.

But some Belleville business owners, such as Jason and Christina Keck of Peace by Piece, say the mobile vendors will hurt the holiday sales of brick and mortar stores that operate and contribute to the city year-round.

"If a shopper has $100 to spend downtown, it would typically get divided among the stores," Christina Keck said. "We are OK sharing it with businesses next to us who are here year after year. We are not OK sharing the $100 with people coming in for 26 days and then you don't see them again for another year."

The Belleville City Council will likely consider the proposal at a meeting on July 7.

Longtime Belle-Scott Committee member Carole Piontkowsky, who lives in Belleville with her husband, a retired colonel from the Air Force, is working with the city and the Belleville 200 Committee to organize the Belleville Christkindlmarkt.

"We can increase the number of military who shop in Belleville by giving them another reason to come to Belleville," Piontkowsky said.

The open-air market is proposed to open the day after Thanksgiving -- when the Santa Parade takes place in downtown Belleville -- and run through Dec. 23.

Vendors will set up on the concrete plaza of the Public Square in the quadrants by the Bank of America building, where the Santa House is typically located, and the Art on the Square building.

Piontkowsky has lined up about eight vendors that will sell items ranging from handmade lace made in Germany to handcarved Christmas Nativity scenes in the Austrian tradition.

The market will also feature German cakes and other treats such as gluhwein, a hot, mulled spiced wine; schnitzel and freshly made strudel.

Piontkowsky said the German Christmas Market will add to the holiday atmosphere -- between the parade, Santa House, gingerbread house displays and trolley -- that already attracts families downtown.

The city's previous successes in turning new events into mainstays -- such as Art on the Square, the Tour de Belleville and the Chili Cook-Off -- means the German Christmas Market will do well, Piontkowsky added.

The vendors will be charged a fee to use the wooden booths, and all applicable health and tax requirements will apply to the vendors, Piontkowsky said.

Mayor Mark Eckert said he believes the market will attract people who do not typically shop in Belleville.

"I would never do anything to hurt downtown or our Belleville businesses," Eckert said. "We believe this market is a way to draw new shoppers to Belleville. They're not going to be competing for the same dollars."

Eckert said he hopes residents embrace this new event, but he plans to talk to businesses afterward to see how they are affected.

"I don't think this will happen, but if it doesn't work, we won't do it again in 2015," Eckert said. "If we don't try it, we'll never know."

He encourages businesses to keep track of the ZIP codes where their shoppers are from during the holidays.

Eckert said his daughter, Kate, who studied in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, experienced the German Christmas Markets firsthand.

"She would come home and just bubble over how neat they were," Eckert said.

But Jason and Christina Keck said they are not convinced the new holiday market will help the city.

They said it feels disrespectful for city officials to consider helping the event by using city funds to pay for costs such as electricity when the money can go to help stores that are in Belleville all year.

The Kecks also are concerned the vendors will sell items similar to what is offered in Belleville stores during the holiday season: Christmas ornaments, beer, wine and sweets.

"Carole probably has the best intention for the city," Jason Keck said. "But our concern is, it's a lot cheaper to run a business out of a truck or hut instead of a building that is here all year long."

The Kecks say they are just looking out for Belleville businesses and encouraging residents to shop small businesses and to shop Belleville first.

"There's just so many battles -- we're competing with online sales, an increased sales tax in Belleville," Jason Keck said. "When you throw one more thing into the mix, you don't know what will break the camel's back."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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