Walk up and down Main Street and you can get an earful from shopkeepers about the impact on businesses by downtown festivals.
All of the businesses contacted by the News-Democrat say they support the festivals now in place but they are divided about whether the city should allow additional streets to be closed for fairs or 5K runs. Some love the crowds but other say business is hurt by the street closures.
Belleville Aldermen have been asked to permit Oktoberfest organizers to extend their annual festival a block farther on East Main Street from High Street to Jackson Street. They postponed a ruling last week after hearing from business owners, and they are expected to vote on the request on June 15.
Scott Muir and Christian Powell run neighboring businesses in the East Main Street block that would be closed off if Oktoberfest is allowed to expand.
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Muir, who owns the Righteous Pig barbecue restaurant at 124 E. Main St., says he plans to run a food booth on the street doing Oktoberfest.
“There’s going to be more people in the area,” Muir said. “They’re going to walk around and check out downtown and I will get more customers then or I get residual customers from it because they see me, they look at the name and they’ll come back.”
Powell, who runs Happy Hop Homebrew & Gourmet at 122 E. Main St., says he supports the festivals but with a caveat.
“I am all about these events,” Powell said. “I love them. I go to them myself. I think they’re great for the city and for some merchants, I think they benefit. In general, though, when you close the streets, merchants don’t do as well as they would with the streets open.”
He said his regular customers who are buying supplies and equipment to brew beer or make wine do not want to battle the traffic during a fair.
Powell’s wife, Andrea Powell, runs the Circa Boutique & Gifts at 128 E. Main St., and she told City Council members on June 1 that she wants them to take businesses into consideration when deciding whether to allow Oktoberfest to expand. She suggested the fair expand on North and South Illinois Street.
John Conkright, the owner of Ben’s at 112 E. Main St., and his daughter, Beth Wamble, the store manager, also spoke to the City Council.
Mike Hawthorne of Oktoberfest told aldermen that the group was considering opening a second stage that would feature German music Sept. 18-19.
Hawthorne said he was fine with aldermen postponing a decision and that his group would be willing to meet with city officials.
Mayor Mark Eckert said he sees both sides of the issue since he and his wife own Eckert Florist at 201 W. Main St.
“I think all of these things have really paid dividends in bringing people downtown,” Eckert said. The festivals such as Art on the Square and Wine, Dine and Jazz have helped Belleville to be “rediscovered” by people who had not been downtown in years.
Eckert said he understands some businesses may not do as well during some festivals, but he thinks the “exposure to new people may be the reason they’re having good days some weeks later. So it’s a balancing act.”
Conkright, who started his business in 1976, noted non-profit civic groups run the large festivals
“We’re not against all these events going on,” Conkright said in an interview. “We don’t want to throw cold water on them. But at the same time, we have a business to try to operate. It’s a double-edged sword. We want to work with them, but we want them to work with us, too.”
Wamble said regular customers who support the store have difficulty parking and reaching the store during festivals.
“We feel that every time the streets are blocked off in the city, it creates a problem for customers getting down here,” she said. “The street closures are the biggest problem that we see.”
Here’s a sampling of views from other business owners:
▪ Scott Schmelzel, co-owner of Big Daddy’s bar at 313 E. Main St., would like to see Oktoberfest expanded several block down East Main Street.
“Every merchant wants foot traffic coming by their store. The Oktoberfest provides that,” he said. “Belleville has become known as a city that has many festivals and creates a good time and positive energy. These festivals promote commerce.”
“We’re Big Daddy’s, we like to have a party obviously,” said Schmelzel, who was one of the sponsors of the third annual Brew & Que street fest on East Main Saturday.
“These festivals bring in large volumes of people and large volumes of outside dollars, and that’s impressive.” He said the owners of the other three Big Daddy’s bars in the St. Louis metro area are “envious” of the festivals in Belleville.
▪ Chuck Blanquart owns George Blanquart Jewelers, which was founded by his father in 1936. The shop has been at 111 E. Main St. since 1968.
“I like the festivals for downtown, but when the streets are blocked in front of our store here, it definitely hurts business,” Blanquart said. “There are plenty of them down here, and if they can work in the areas they started out, that’d be great.”
Blanquart said, during Art on the Square, his sales increase, but during most of the other street festivals, business can drop off as much as 50 percent.
“Keep it on the square,” he said. “It’s worked all these years.”
▪ Christina Keck, co-owner of Peace by Piece Co. women’s boutique at 132 W. Main St., suggested the city maintain current locations for festivals.
“All of these existing festivals are fine. Some of them are shopping events and some of them are not, but you can’t have it all. And it’s not just about the shops, it’s about the bars and restaurants, too. And so I think we have a good mix of existing events.”
Upcoming events in downtown Belleville:
8th annual Pride Festival: June 20
Wine, Dine and Jazz: June 26-27
Tour de Belleville: July 10
Oktoberfest: Sept. 18-19
32nd annual Chili Cook-off: Oct. 2-3
Events earlier this year included the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Law Day 5K, Art on the Square and the Shrine Circus parade.