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Street Fest leaders weigh 2009 options

By Staff | Apr 10, 2009

The planning committee of the Shepherdstown Street Festival, an annual day-long music and crafts fair designed to celebrate Shepherdstown, will be asking members of the public a simple question at the town hall meeting on Tuesday, April 14: Should Street Fest happen in 2009? Concerns about the economic impacts of the festival on downtown retailers on the heels of a slow winter retail season exacerbated by the sour economy have prompted the Street Fest planning committee to go before the Town Council at its 6:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting to seek input from parties with an interest in this matter.

“If the interested parties think it’s unseemly to hold the festival at this time, then we will go on a one year hiatus and return stronger than ever,” says Martha Frase, a member of the Street Fest planning committee since its inception. “We’re just trying to get input from all interested parties.”

Among the perspectives likely to be heard are those of Shepherdstown’s German Street retailers, who have long had concerns relating to shutting down the street for 12 hours or more on a Saturday, normally the busiest day of the week for Shepherdstown’s retailers.

Retailers up and down German Street report that business on the day of Street Fest has been, at best, comparable to any other Saturday. High-end retailers such as Dickinson & Wait and The Herb Lady report sluggish sales far below the average on comparable Saturdays. Also, many retailers note that the increased competition from street-side retail vending, a feature of the festival, makes it harder to get people into the stores. Melissa Lettick, owner of The Herb Lady store puts an approximate number to her retail pain: Business has been down by at least half on every Street Fest since it moved to German Street.

Shepherdstown’s restaurant and bar industry, on the other hand, reports sales above average compared to other Saturdays. George Moody, owner of the Mecklenburg Inn, says it’s all about playing the game.

“If a restaurant puts a grill out in front of their shop,” says Moody, “they make a killing.”

Other members of the local restaurant scene concur.

Liz Gallery, owner of the Stone Soup Bistro, says she hopes they can work it out. She reports that “business is rocking on that day.”

Bartenders and waitresses talked to for this story report a surge in tips on that day, tips which they note, they spend at local businesses in the days and weeks after the festival.

One waiter who really hopes the Street Fest isn’t canceled is Greg Jaranko at Kazu. He’s already taken the day off. “Last year I worked a double during Street Fest, and we were slammed, but I made a killing. This year I went out of my way to get that day off, I was looking forward to getting to participate this year. I hope they can work something out.”

Exacerbating the situation for both the restaurateur and business-people is the recent property tax assessments which have raised rents for many downtown business tenants. Retailers want to keep business as average as possible so as to not lose any ground in a slagging economy, while restaurateurs want to take advantage of an above-average day to gain some ground against the recession.

Some residents of Shepherdstown unencumbered with the economic bias of involvement in either the retail or restaurant industry of downtown reported almost universal disappointment in the prospect of a summer without Street Fest. Three out of 11 Shepherdstown residents informally polled in this story reported not knowing anything about an event called Street Fest. The rest hoped they could work something out.

Susan Benjamin, a mother living near the intersection of Church and Washington streets said she’d be devastated if they didn’t have Street Fest. “It’s so much fun, and it’s one of the few times the entire community gathers as one.”

Jaime Brown, 27, grew up in Shepherdstown on West High Street. She now lives near the 7-Eleven outside town on W.Va. 45. She had recently been checking the Web site of the town Visitors Center to see if she could find any information on the festival. When asked of her thoughts on previous festivals, she quickly responded that she loves it. When that question was followed up with a query on her opinion if Street Fest were to not happen her face quickly dropped. She said only that she’d be “disappointed.”

Elizabeth Wheeler, a local resident living near Princess and Washington streets, hopes that next Tuesday’s meeting will produce results. “It’s a balance between what we give up in terms of convenience. I imagine there’s a way to restructure the layout so it benefits all the business in town.”