To many city residents, Bele Chere is one big party. But for downtown business owners, the city’s midsummer bash can be one big hassle: Regular customers can’t find parking — and that’s assuming they even manage to negotiate blocked or crowded streets. Deliveries can’t be made. Festival booths nearly block storefronts. And, with the press of crowds, shop owners must increase their vigilance for shoplifters.
But the real stickler for merchants has been their apparently limited opportunity to share in the $12 million the festival is estimated to bring to the Asheville area each year.
“It didn’t make sense: The busiest [weekend] of the summer season, you’d end up with someone’s booth in front of your door,” says Kim MacQueen, co-owner of Gold Hill Espresso and Fine Teas on Haywood Street, recalling past Bele Chere experiences. Most festival vendors “are here just one time, one shot. Come winter, we [downtown businesses] are still here. We totally feed into the tax base,” she maintains, adding that “A lot of downtown businesses pay for the lean months [with] a busy summer season.”
But downtown restaurateurs who wished to open their own outside food booths during the city’s biggest summer festival were faced with high fees, MacQueen adds. “When I first came to Asheville, Bele Chere [organizers] wanted to charge me $700 to sell coffee outdoors.” MacQueen simply couldn’t afford to do it.
A few years ago, some downtown business owners tried to circumvent the high fees and red tape by removing their storefront windows and hawking sodas and beers from inside — a move which didn’t sit well with city officials and Bele Chere organizers.
Meanwhile, mega-companies like Budweiser or Miller can afford to sponsor all the beer booths and try to convince festival organizers not to allow Highland Brewery — a local company — to fly a banner during the event, Barley’s owner Doug Beatty complains. “Big corporate crap, that’s what we’re fighting,” he says bluntly. Local businesses, Beatty argues, “are the ones spending money in this town. [They] keep 80 cents on the dollar in the community, while big businesses and chains take 96 cents out of Asheville.”
How does that relate to Bele Chere? The festival was created expressly to showcase downtown, back when Asheville’s center was mostly a ghost town, Beatty points out. “The flavor of Asheville is in the local stores, shops, art galleries and restaurants,” he asserts. “We believed the Bele Chere board had lost sight [of that].”
Beatty helped found the Merchants Action Coalition, which represents nearly 30 downtown shop owners who have been helping develop Bele Chere policies that everyone can live with. To that end, Beatty and other MAC steering-committee members, such as MacQueen and Joe Eckert (co-owner of the Laughing Seed Cafe), have been meeting with Bele Chere organizers and city staff in the months preceding this year’s festival.
It was a little awkward at first, admits 1998 Bele Chere Board Chair Joyce Harrison, who’s also the director of the Self-Help Credit Union on Wall Street. “One of the things we knew we had to do was work on the relationship between Bele Chere and downtown businesses. Being a downtown business owner, I could relate to what they needed. And one reason I said yes to chairing the board [this year] was to see that downtown businesses got a fair share.”
City Parks and Recreation staff were already at work on consolidating the food vendors into three “food courts” — and the idea of creating a special area for downtown restaurants fit right in, Harrison said.
“To alleviate the [restaurants’] initial setup costs, we agreed to waive their booth fees,” says Parks and Rec Events Manager Paul Clark. And festival organizers, he says, “made a conscious decision to cut down on competition” — allowing fewer outside food vendors.
Other downtown merchants got reduced fees for setting up their own nonfood retail booths — and were also allowed to decorate their storefronts, if they wanted to avoid having a vendor booth right at their doorstep, Clark adds. The result: From an administrative point of view, merchant complaints were down this year, reports Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson. And participation by downtown merchants was up significantly, from 25 to 44 — including those who took part in the Taste of Asheville.
Billing it as a “festival within a festival,” Eckert pitched in by leasing from an out-of-state company almost all the equipment that participating restaurants needed to run their food booths.
Was it successful?
“Oh, yeah: Everybody did well,” reports Beatty. His Barley’s booth was out of pizza dough by 8 a.m. Saturday — not even 24 hours into the festival. The Laughing Seed booth had run out of burritos by Sunday.
“We were totally fried afterwards,” says Eckert, laughing as he recalls why he closed his Wall Street restaurant for two whole days after Bele Chere. “Next year, we’ll have to stockpile more food,” he adds. Eckert reports that the other Taste of Asheville participants — Loretta’s, Vincenzo’s, La Caterina Trattoria, 23 Page, Salsa’s, the Blue Rooster and Max’s Deli — also did well.
“We’ve already got 15 restaurants interested in doing it next year,” Beatty says. For 1999, Bele Chere organizers will be working with MAC to determine fair fees for the new food booths.
“It’s the best thing I’ve seen,” says Harrison about Taste of Asheville. “The downtown merchants came together and shared a common purpose and a common goal.”
“We’ve done a lot of compromising and working together,” Beatty adds, praising the way city staff, the Bele Chere board and MAC worked together this year. He hopes that spirit of cooperation will continue — especially since the coalition has other issues on its mind: crime on “The Block” (Eagle/Market Streets), downtown parking, and the proliferation of chain stores downtown.
“If Asheville already has seven coffee shops and [national chain] Starbucks opens up downtown, our businesses will suffer,” Beatty asserts. As for parking … everyone who lives or works or shops downtown shares that concern. To alleviate some of the problems, MAC is trying to convince private parking-lot owners to amend their contracts with local towing companies, so that evening visitors can park there, says Beatty. The coalition also wants to consider what can be done about the increasing number of homeless people and panhandlers frequenting downtown.
“We’re not just a bunch of complainers,” says MacQueen. “These are issues that would be on any citizen’s list.” MAC, she says, will come up with plans and ideas for how to address these concerns, and will work with city officials on getting something done.
“We’re looking for solutions,” proclaims Beatty.
To find out more about the Merchants Action Coalition, call Doug Beatty at 281-3910.