At Monday evening’s Eureka Springs City Council meeting, Public Comments took the forefront. “It takes a lot to get me out of my cage until I am really irritated, and now I am really irritated,” Cameron Denoewer, owner of The Bear and Barber, remarked. “I can’t believe what is going on.” He insisted the Night Market scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 9, from 4-9 p.m., in which a section of Spring Street will be barricaded off, was “grossly mishandled in every single possible way.”
Denoewer said merchants were not involved in the planning of the event but instead were told after the event was planned they could participate by paying a certain amount or else someone else would be able to put a booth in front of their shops. He called it extortion. Denoewer insisted the event “needs to be stopped or re-organized immediately.”
Following Denoewer was Bob Jasinski who said the goal behind events like this one ought to be getting people into shops, not out on the street. He has seen similar Christmas shopping events in other towns be successful in which the merchants offer finger foods, drinks and discounts. He said midweek would be a better time for it, and called the planning of this event an insult to shop owners.
Jack Moyer, chair of Main Street Eureka Springs, had a different view. He said the idea came from the national Main Street conference where they heard about a similar event in another town. His board vetted the concept and planned it so it would not conflict with shopping downtown. It will occur in conjunction with the annual Living Windows program, and Moyer said the goal is to create a signature event that says Eureka Springs is open for Christmas.
He emphasized the cooperative planning involving several entities in town, and he and other Main Street board and staff surveyed merchants, and he was “pleased with the overwhelming positive response.”
When the topic came up on the agenda, alderman Mickey Schneider commented she has been hearing from merchants who are furious, and there will be merchants negatively affected well beyond just the Spring Street shop owners where the street will be closed. “This thing is wrong,” she said.
Schneider then intended to give time to two merchants on Spring Street to speak, but council first went back and forth over how to properly allow folks to speak on a topic on the agenda and for how long. Schneider’s motion to allow members of the public to speak for five minutes each was eventually approved, so more commentary followed.
Mel Shipley said he was informed about the street closure only two weeks ago. He claimed he also surveyed downtown merchants and 26 told him they were against it. He asked what could outside vendors bring in that Eureka Springs does not already have? He pointed out merchants are already dealing with competition from Internet sales, and asked, “What mayor on God’s green earth would shut down his main street?” He called the deal back door politics and said there might be picketers and blacked out windows because merchants do not like not being part of the decision. He exhorted council “to take the power away from the dictatorship.”
Karen Lindblad presented copies of a petition signed by 29 downtown merchants requesting “our mayor, Butch Berry, [to] revoke the permit that would close Spring Street to traffic on Saturday, December 9.” She said she has seen in her more than 40 years downtown that business plummets when Spring Street is closed. She asked council to take back control of closing streets and start including retailers in these decisions.
Moyer, getting a second turn, pointed out Christmas is getting better for downtown merchants than it was years ago because Main Street and others are doing something to make Christmas better. He posited doing the same thing over and over is not growth, and repeated that this event sends the message that Eureka Springs is open for business. He also stated it was not fair to blame Berry because Main Street brought the idea to him. Moyer asked the group to honor the process and give the event a chance.
Denoewer on his second go-around claimed it was self-interest pushing the Night Market and it was not about retailers. He said if the city wanted a signature event, don’t borrow one from another city. He noticed no one from Main Street had ever stepped into his shop on official business. He also pointed out that the meeting about building community was at 9 a.m. on a Thursday when most merchants had to work.
Jan Shipley told council she wanted the power to go back to the people.
Alderman David Mitchell acknowledged that retail business is tough right now, but also acknowledged the Night Market is an attempt to “break the mold of old” and bring more visitors downtown. He approved of the concept Jasinski had presented, but said none of these ideas would help this year. The Night Market is set, the mayor had the authority to temporarily close the street for the event, so the process was followed correctly although the petition says not everyone agrees with the result.
Schneider said the process “painfully overlooked” the merchants who are the front line for the only industry in town, tourism. “Merchants should be the number one concern,” she insisted, and said the Basin Park Hotel will not lose anything during this event, but Mel Shipley’s shop will.
“If you shut them [merchants] out, you’re screwing the town,” Schneider said.
City Attorney Tim Weaver clarified he was not aware of anything improper in what Berry had done by allowing Spring Street to be closed temporarily. Just as during a flood or parade, it the executive branch that has authority to close a street temporarily. Schneider wondered if council should not create an ordinance further regulating street closures to protect the merchants in such situations. Berry said his office is already working on improving applications for these events.
Alderman Terry McClung responded that Berry understood the gravity of a situation like this, and he can set his own policy for the future.
There being no further comments, Berry closed the discussion.