Belleville

Do downtown Belleville festivals help or hurt business?

Belleville City Council exchange between mayor, business owner

Video excerpt from the Belleville City Council meeting on March 7, 2016, between Mayor Mark Eckert and Ben's owner John Conkright.
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Video excerpt from the Belleville City Council meeting on March 7, 2016, between Mayor Mark Eckert and Ben's owner John Conkright.

The downtown Belleville festival season cranks up again with streets closed for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Saturday and city leaders are again grappling with questions about whether the festivals help or hurt downtown businesses.

Last year, some shopkeepers complained about the city allowing Oktoberfest to extend further down East Main Street because their sales decrease during festivals. But other business owners praise the city for allowing a slew of street festivals and parades because the events provide great publicity for downtown and promote commerce.

And at the last two city council meetings, aldermen have heard complaints about the city allowing South High Street to be closed from East Main to East Washington streets on Saturday after the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Brian Besse, owner of Seven bar and restaurant at 7 S. High St., requested the closure of South High Street and aldermen voted 11-4 on Feb. 16 to allow the closure. This would be the third straight year the street is closed for the St. Patrick’s Day festival and the street is scheduled to reopen at 1 a.m. Sunday.

Before the High Street celebration gets underway, Belleville’s St. Patrick’s Day parade begins at 11 a.m. at Third and A streets. Participants will go south on Third Street and east on Main Street, ending at Oak Street. Block parties also will be on the first block of West Main Street and on East Main Street from Jackson to Charles streets. Mayor Mark Eckert said the streets will not be closed if there is inclement weather.

You’re sacrificing basically two businesses to improve the lot of one business and I’m not really for that.

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White

John Conkright, owner of Ben’s at 112 E. Main St., told aldermen on Monday, “We don’t do the business” when streets are closed. He was one of the downtown shopkeepers who opposed the extension of Oktoberfest last year.

He said that last Saturday he saw two customers carry into his store sewing machines for repair and two leave with sewing machines already repaired.

“When you have these events, the people have to park sometimes two and three blocks away from our store,” he said. “They don’t want to carry those two or three blocks.”

“If you look at my customers going out the door, I’d say seven or eight out of 10 are going to carry a package out,” Conkright said. “They’re not going to carry a package out, walk the streets and drink beer and so forth. It’s not our crowd.”

Besse, in an interview, said he believes the downtown festivals have helped all downtown businesses and noted that Conkright’s store recently expanded.

“We hear his concerns but at the end of the day, we’re looking for positive movement for Belleville,” said Besse, who opened his bar and restaurant eight years ago. Seven is located across the street from the High Street entrance to Ben’s.

“This negativity is not doing anything to help Belleville,” Besse said. “I love Belleville and I think Belleville is moving in the right direction.”

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White was one of the four aldermen who voted against closing South High Street.

White, whose district includes South High Street, told aldermen he received letters from two businesses regarding the High Street closure. One was from Conkright’s daughter, Beth Wamble, and the other was from Jimmy John’s, which has parking places reserved on South High Street for their delivery drivers.

Wamble asked that the closure be delayed until after Ben’s closes at 5 p.m. on Saturday while the owner of Jimmy John’s at 100 E. Main St. was concerned about where delivery drivers could park.

Eckert said the city will reserve a couple of spots on Saturday for Jimmy John’s delivery drivers in the city parking lot behind Ben’s and Jimmy John’s. The mayor said the city also can reserve spots for Ben’s customers if Conkright requests it.

“I find it difficult to benefit one business over another,” White said about his vote. “You’re sacrificing basically two businesses to improve the lot of one business and I’m not really for that.”

Wamble said she was “extremely disappointed” with Eckert and the city council.

“To allow this street closure that will benefit one business to the detriment of other businesses is not right,” she said in an email.

The number of people visiting downtown has become quite an attraction and my deep feeling and honest belief is that on a whole, this increased traffic and increased exposure to many, many visitors to downtown has helped business.

Mayor Mark Eckert

Eckert said the city has made every effort to promote Ben’s as well as all the downtown businesses.

“We have no intention ever of hurting our downtown businesses,” Eckert said.

At one point during Conkright’s comments to the city council on Monday, he said the mayor told him in a phone conversation that he would never receive the support of the city council, a charge that Eckert denied saying.

Conkright said he spoke during the public participation section of the meeting to respond to comments Eckert had said about him during the council meeting on Feb. 16 and then in the phone conversation.

“I respect Mr. Conkright, I respect all the businesses, no matter how big or small,” Eckert said in an interview. “Nobody has set out to hurt anybody, and we certainly haven’t quit listening. He doesn’t want street closures. He’s really not going to be happy until we stop them all.

“The number of people visiting downtown has become quite an attraction and my deep feeling and honest belief is that on a whole, this increased traffic and increased exposure to many, many visitors to downtown has helped business,” Eckert said. “Maybe not on a specific day, but throughout the other 360 some days of the year, I firmly believe it’s helped all their business.”

Want to go?

Upcoming downtown Belleville events include:

  • 11 a.m. Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Main Street. South High Street closed between East Main Street and East Washington Street until 1 a.m. Sunday.
  • May 13-15: Art on the Square
  • June 3: Shriners Circus Days Parade
  • June 11: Pride Festival
  • June 24-25: Wine, Dine & Jazz Festival
  • July 8: Tour de Belleville
  • Sept. 16-17: Oktoberfest
  • Oct. 7-8: Chili Cook-off
  • Nov. 25: Santa Parade
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