Harvest Homecoming 2013, Part Two: No longer what downtown is about.


These thoughts were first published here on September 25, 2012. 

Yesterday: More evolution, less fear.

See also: A message to Harvest Homecoming food vendors … and your PourGate update for Monday, September 30.

It is undoubtedly true that Harvest Homecoming draws large numbers of visitors to “booth days” downtown. This fact alone will strike many readers as sufficient reason to let time-tested matters rest; after all, throngs for any event are a good thing no matter what, right, and if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

As with AWOL councilman Bob Caesar’s rote insistence that one-way arterial streets slicing through a new-age revitalizing downtown are peachy keen, the reaction from some when it comes to criticizing Harvest Homecoming is visceral:

Why would these ungrateful businesses downtown complain when they have such a wonderful opportunity to market themselves to big crowds?

Because it’s not at all that simple.

For the type of businesses now calling downtown New Albany home, certain crowds are better than others. It isn’t as much about the crowd’s size as its composition.

Naturally, there are mercantile possibilities inherent in Harvest Homecoming’s invading legions, and commerce is not only possible, but likely, and yet there are considerable differences between target clienteles. Our new downtown businesses tend to be specialized, offering goods and services tailored to particular modes of thought, and while Harvest Homecoming’s vibe tries to be egalitarian, the festival also is understandably narcissistic. It is about itself, drawing attention to itself, not its surroundings.

What makes a revitalizing downtown like ours increasingly vibrant isn’t necessarily what makes an exurban Wal-Mart packed, or a stadium filled with college football fans exuberant. It all depends on the composition of the crowd. An opera house may or may not be a good place to sell fried chicken, or a ballpark Gucci, although lately, in places other than white-bread Louisville Slugger Field, enlightened minds have started to see the virtue of offering sushi and craft beer to baseball fans.

The old axiom about “location, location, location” grows ever less relevant. It applies to some businesses, not necessarily to all. Niche businesses can survive and thrive by choosing specialized product lines, and catering to consumers who know the difference. They do not necessarily need high traffic volumes such as those we were raised from childhood to insist are essential.

Especially in an evolving downtown setting like New Albany’s, numerous niche businesses must be viewed as a collective entity, with their ideal location not being an interstate ramp’s indiscriminate spewing of speeding autos, but a distinct sense of place itself as a destination for those making a calculated decision of where they’ll spend both time and money.

In effect, Harvest Homecoming arrives once yearly to remake and remodel downtown to suit its own purposes, and with passing time, the overlay bears less and less resemblance to daily reality. In truth, this can hurt local businesses in the long term even if there is a short-term boost in trade.

In New Albany, primarily because of the mechanism known as the riverfront development three-way permit for alcohol sales, revitalization has been led by restaurants and bars. A second wave of galleries and shops slowly follows. More downtown residential opportunities via existing lofts and upstairs spaces hopefully will come next.

Virtually all of these improvements are dedicated to a demographic proposition intended to be practiced 365 days of the year, so how do the crowds convening downtown during Harvest Homecoming booth days fit into the intended future demographic, especially given that an increasing number of the street vendors do not hail from this area?

In all probability they don’t fit, but at the very least, even if we are to concede the utility of the festival as currently operated, should businesses already in existence downtown, year-round, be forced to cower for four days behind the reeking facades of food purveyors from Keokuk? We tout downtown as a foodie paradise, then hide restaurant entrances behind elephant ear stands.

Conversely, if they so desire, shouldn’t those businesses already in existence downtown have the same chance as Harvest Homecoming’s paying vendors to profit from the hordes, if they choose to try reaching them? Moreover, shouldn’t they have the very first chance?

More tomorrow.