These thoughts were first published here on September 25, 2012, but have been augmented for 2014. An extensive Facebook thread documents these and other points.
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 and faith-based:
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, some crowds are better than others. It isn’t as much about the crowd’s size as its composition. Or, as Ryan Rogers of Feast BBQ eloquently wrote after a commenter said, “I could sell dog turds and make money at Harvest Homecoming”:
(He’s) right, I could sell dog turds and make money, but I try to have some integrity in the way I do business. It’s hard to compete with the traveling barbecue pits that undercuts our price by $3-4 dollar because they are running an entirely cash business, probably committing tax fraud (though maybe not), and definitely not paying the utilities, taxes, maintenance, and initial startup restoration of a 133 year old building. Not to mention the fact that we pay our employees all multiple dollars above wage. That being said our barbecue isn’t pump and dump, all of our meat is brined 24-72 hours prior to ever being smoked (unlike the traveling pits that literally dump their meat from the box onto their smokers), and we have the capacity to do the volume we do in house.
So tell me why again I should spend more money just to recapture the money I am losing because the normal clientele that actually spends money in local businesses (and in turn those businesses generate tax revenue) 51 other weeks a year have no where to park because we’ve got a made in China trinket fest going on.
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 and business models, as Ryan clearly explicates in the preceding.
Our new downtown businesses offer goods and services tailored to particular modes of thought, and while Harvest Homecoming’s vibe endeavors to be egalitarian, and occasionally succeeds, the festival also is understandably narcissistic. It is about itself, drawing attention to itself and the street vendors who pay to play, not its surroundings.
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 for success.
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 its own business model. With passing time, the festival 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?
As usual, Jeff Gillenwater gets the last word.
Every year, business owners and residents rightfully complain about negative impacts. Every year, HH officials scoff at them as has occurred in this thread. What’s been called “tired” is only that way because HH never listens. To me, it’s simple: As HH is the entity consistently seeking to disrupt so many, the onus to prove substantial positive impact to justify that disruption falls on them. As others have noted, they don’t even try to do that beyond their own self-serving claims sans any evidence or dialogue in support. Until that changes, street closures to the extent HH demands shouldn’t be allowed. Do I think the mayor’s office, development staff, and/or Board of Works has the fortitude to hold HH to what should be an obvious standard? Nope, not for a second. People who have rehabbed commercial buildings and residences, started new businesses, and implemented new programs – none of which have anything to do with HH – have done their part to initiate and sustain positive change. It’s past time for HH to do theirs or face some disruption of their own. Broken record like, I repeat: business owners and residents have to work together against what’s unfortunately become a common nuisance.