Eckert: German Christmas Market won't hurt downtown businesses

News-DemocratJuly 15, 2014 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert and his wife Rita.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

— Downtown merchants do not need to worry that a planned Christmastime market will threaten their business, says Mayor Mark Eckert.

"This was never ever meant in any way to be something that would divide," Eckert said.

The City Council recently approved the German Christmas Market by a 12-2 vote. Vendors selling goods and crafts influenced by cultures in Germany, Austria, the Ukraine and Egypt will occupy chalets that will stand on the north east and southeast quadrants of Public Square during the holiday shopping season between the day after Thanksgiving and Dec. 23.

Eckert said these temporary vendors will not sell items that compete with existing business and will only enhance the downtown shopping experience during the holiday season.

However, some downtown business owners have said these temporary vendors will take away from their sales at what is typically the most profitable and crucial time of the year. Eight downtown businesses penned a letter to the council stating that parking is already limited in downtown Belleville during the holidays and said organizers are gambling the success of brick-and-mortar businesses to see if a vendor-based market will succeed.

Eckert addressed their concerns immediately following a meeting of the Belleville Main Street Committee Tuesday night at City Hall. He said the city has been discussing plans to host a German Christmas Market for years. He said a lot of the interest and momentum for this project has come from those who work at Scott Air Force Base who have experience German Christmas Markets abroad and in other communities across the country.

He said these vendors will only help bring more vendors downtown. He is also focused on attracting more business after St. Elizabeth's Hospital recently announced its plans to build a hospital in O'Fallon and leave Belleville.

"I am very concerned about the efforts of St. Elizabeth's to leave downtown," he said. "I think this is a great time to try a new venue and try to bring more people to this destination of downtown Belleville. If St. Elizabeth's were to unfortunately succeeded in vacating our downtown after 140-plus years, it will be devastating. I'm working on that. That's where I need to spend my time, so much time every day. But I will tell you not ever once did I get behind this Christmas market thinking there was a risk of hurting you."

Scott Schmelzel, co-owner of Big Daddy's 618 at 313 E. Main St., said he is interested in what attention and tourism the German Christmas Market could bring downtown.

"I don't know if it will bring a big windfall for our business, but this could bring tourists-type money," Schmelzel said. "And tourists tend to spend money."

Others are concerned that the German Christmas Market will take away business from his and other existing merchants.

"There are only so many dollars," said Steve Rye, owner of Sole Survivor at 125 E. Main St. "They're just going to take their dollars from businesses that exist."

Eckert said that in order to grow the downtown area, the city needs to be willing to try something new like this.

"It's like anything," he said. "I'm convinced that we need to try things to continue to grow."

John Conkright, owner of Ben's Crafts Framing Gifts Toys at 112 E. Main St., said that the German Christmas Market was forced on the merchants.

"The problem with all of this is it didn't come to the retailers," Conkright said. "It's a done deal, basically."

"I don't think it was good how it was handled," he also said. "I still think we should have known about it, first."

Eckert said the city is and has been trying to be totally transparent with downtown merchants. He also said that downtown merchants will be provided further information.

"We are building an atmosphere that is different form other cities," Eckert said. "It's got great potential."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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