ON THE AVENUES: A downtown business owner’s open letter to Harvest Homecoming.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
This week’s guest columnist is Cisa Kubley, the owner and operator of Sew Fitting, located at 156 East Main Street (on the southeast corner of Bank and Main). Harvest Homecoming officials have been offered the opportunity to reply in this space on November 9.
An open letter to the Harvest Homecoming Board and Committee
Years ago, in the early days of Harvest Homecoming, downtown New Albany (following the trend of downtowns across the country) was dying. Businesses were closing their doors and storefronts remained empty for years. At least in part, Harvest Homecoming was developed as a means of using the space available as well as to bring people into downtown.
During the past decade, New Albany’s downtown has undergone a huge transformation, especially in the last few years as growth and the opening of new businesses has positively boomed. The festival format and execution have remained practically unchanged. Do you see where this might be a problem? Wildly different and booming downtown. Outdated and static festival format.
Year-round downtown residents and businesses have complained to the Harvest Homecoming committee as well as the city for years. For seven years I have been one of those businesses. I have endured Harvest Homecoming in three different downtown locations, two on Pearl Street and one on Main Street.
Every year is a problem. Every year I try to work with the committee on improvements. Every year myself and other downtown business owners are lied to, ignored, and dismissed because, “Everyone in New Albany loves Harvest Homecoming,” “It’s been here for 50 years, you should just deal with it,” and “Downtown businesses have never complained about any issues with the festival.”
In my current location, Harvest Homecoming doesn’t affect my business only during the booth days. My neighbors and I lose our employee and customer parking for two weeks while the Fiesta rides are set up.
This does not even take into account the fact that the ride operators live in the alley behind our building during their stay here; they wander the streets in the evening knocking on our windows, let their dogs eliminate in our tree wells with no clean up, and leave garbage around our buildings.
When I have repeatedly asked what our employees and customers are supposed to do for parking for two weeks I am met with blank stares. When we lose access even to street parking during booth days and I asked what arrangements the Harvest Homecoming committee would be making to help us with a dilemma directly caused by their event, I was met with bewilderment.
It was as though they couldn’t understand why the total lack of parking access to our livelihood might be an issue to me or any other business. I continued to ask and was met with rudeness and the understanding that, as far as the Harvest Homecoming organizers are concerned, it absolutely is not their problem.
Finally, after having been told repeatedly that my calls would be returned and questions answered, I was told that the city would be providing parking passes for my employees in the parking garage on State and Market.
First of all, why is the city paying for the Harvest Homecoming’s mess? Second, how does this help my customers reach me, many of whom are elderly or disabled in some way?
Then I was told, with much palpable exasperation, that although they were very busy at the Harvest Homecoming office, someone would deliver these parking passes to my office the night before the booths opened.
Appreciating the amount of work that goes into running a festival, especially all the last minute to-dos, I thought to save someone a trip. On my way home for lunch I stopped by the Harvest Homecoming office that day to pick up the passes. I was informed that they didn’t have them and still needed to get them from the city.
My shop is open until 6 pm through the week and yet no passes were ever delivered. By closing time the first booth was up and we still had no passes. What should I tell my staff? Show up hours early for work so that you can find parking? Pay festival rates to use a local lot? Risk a parking ticket by parking in the parking garage in the hopes that the elusive parking passes eventually turn up?
After speaking with a local worker whose company pays $28 per parking spot each month in the garage so that their employees don’t take up street parking spaces that customers need to use, I won’t be asking my employees to use the parking garage. This particular company pays for their parking spaces year round, but during Harvest Homecoming they often can’t use their reserved spaces because festival goers take their place.
On the second booth day, as we still had no parking passes, two of my employees came in to work hours early in order to avoid the crowds and try to find parking. One even gave up and took an Uber to work. Saturday we simply had to close our doors.
In my years of battling the parking issue with Harvest Homecoming organizers I often have been told that if the festival is such an issue I should just shut down during booth days. Dozens of downtown businesses do exactly that.
Have you thought about what happens when a business has to close?
For every day that a business is closed they can’t make any sales. Overhead expenses don’t get put on hold when a business closes. While some businesses treat this as vacation for their employees, not all small businesses are able to offer paid vacation time. If employees are hourly, for every day that a business is closed, employees lose pay.
So what is a business to do? Stay open and incur costs that the business isn’t making any sales to offset, or close, incur costs anyway, and cut hours from employees?
When you count the number of businesses in downtown who are negatively impacted, taking into account all the ones that don’t have something they could sell from a booth, you are talking about the loss of tens of thousands of dollars of revenue and easily thousands of dollars of lost wages for employees.
While we’re on the subject of businesses who may or may not be able to offset lost sales by participating in the festival booths, how much do you know about what it takes to have a booth?
An argument that I’ve often heard when discussing lost sales from Harvest Homecoming is that I could just have a booth. My business is a service; I don’t really have anything to sell from a booth. When I was in the White House Centre on Pearl Street I was told I should have a booth with an open back so that people can walk through from the booth area into my building.
Now, let’s keep in mind that my particular business isn’t really a stop in and shop kind of place. People bring us clothing to work on and then come back to pick them up after the work is completed. Booth streets are crowded and full of people eating and drinking. Can you see where this might be a deterrent for someone carrying clothing to or from our building?
There certainly are some retail businesses in the booth areas that might be able to better utilize a walk-through booth than my business is. That being said, I know several businesses which tried and year after year they find that it is not worth the expense, the hassle, and the increased risk of shop-lifting.
For a festival that purports to support independent business and the local community, I would think the logical setup to help businesses in the booth areas would be to offer those businesses free, or at least reduced, booth space directly in front of their building. What better way to help festival attendees find out about the brick and mortar businesses in downtown than to encourage those businesses to participate and make it a financially viable option for them, right?
These businesses pay rent or a mortgage for their space all year. If you’re throwing a festival that impedes their regular business but would like them to participate, giving them booth space is a simple, cost effective way for everyone to benefit. Sadly, this is not how it works. If you’re located within the booth areas and would like a booth, or at least access to the building that you pay for all year, you can fork over hundreds of dollars for the privilege.
I have no doubt that planning for the next year’s festival begins shortly after the closing of the current year’s event. That gives a year for alternative plans to be made to assist the businesses who are negatively impacted. Why then, when my neighbors and I call in the weeks leading up to the festival every year, does nothing change?
Every year more downtown buildings are rehabilitated and wonderful new businesses move in. The problems caused by the festival are not going to magically go away. They are simply going to affect more and more businesses.
I am not asking that the festival be shut down or done away with. I am asking that the festival committee do more than offer excuses and hollow apologies to the dozens of businesses which are negatively affected because the festival is still set up and run as though downtown were a ghost town.
Take seriously the fact that refusal to change the festival model impedes the livelihoods of hundreds of downtown workers. If shops can’t be open, workers aren’t paid. The business generates no revenue and yet they still incur their regular expenses. How is our business community supposed to be sustainable when a festival that claims to celebrate that community actively gets in the way of business operations?
These aren’t new issues, these aren’t new complaints. At what point will the Harvest Homecoming committee and the city finally make adjustments for the betterment of the whole community, not just those who enjoy the festival?
With all due respect to the history of Harvest Homecoming and my assumption of good intentions on the part of the committee, I simply cannot support an event that shows such blatant disregard and disrespect for the year-round businesses that lose money year after year.
We have tried to be cooperative, we have tried to help come up with solutions and alternatives, and we have asked for some kind of recognition for the loss of accessibility and revenue that is forced upon us every year. At what point is enough enough?
Loss of a week’s income because the festival committee refuses to take the complaints of the negative impact on local businesses seriously is unacceptable to me. Why do the Harvest Homecoming powers that be seem to think that their two weeks of activity trumps the dozens and dozens of businesses that provide goods, services, and revenue for downtown New Albany year round?