My working title for this article was “Beads and Booze”, but the topic is much broader, so I’ve adjusted it into a question:
What role do special events have in bringing people into the downtown and into the downtown businesses?
The answer is a bit complicated. Despite the inflated financial impact numbers that some special event promoters throw around, the benefit to the downtown is often negligible.
We currently have six general types of events in New Port Richey:
- Events in Sims Park / Orange Lake
- Events in Sims Park that spill out into the downtown
- Downtown events
- Events in Railroad Square / Cavalier Square
The first group of events are centered in Sims Park / Orange Lake. Generally speaking, they are confined to the parks, although they sometimes expand into the Gloria Swanson Parking lot as well. Car shows that circle the lake require some traffic detours. Otherwise, the roads generally stay open.
These events are going to need to make some adjustments going forward as the Swanson lot is in regular use by the businesses in the Incubator and will likely be heavily used on a daily basis as the Hacienda and Sims Park projects get started this fall. Fortunately, there are other places that can be used for carnivals and the like.
People coming for an event in the park typically go straight to the park and then straight home afterwards. The popular movies in the park series are a good example of this behavior. That is not to say that the movies series is a bad thing. To the contrary, the free movies in the park offer young families a great entertainment value. The complete lack of positive impact on the downtown doesn’t have to be the case. For example, it wouldn’t take much to create some commercial tie-ins between the movies and local restaurants.
While these events don’t particularly help the downtown businesses, they don’t generally hurt them either.
The second group of events spill out into the downtown. A good example of this will be the Bike Fest coming up October 10, 11, and 12th. My initial reaction to Bike Fest when it first came to town wasn’t particularly positive, in large measure because of the rowdy reputation that Bike Week in Daytona Beach had developed.
The Bike Fest here has been a much more subdued event with few problems. I’ve adopted the attitude that, if motorcycle owners want to park their very expensive toys in front of my store, that’s okay. My job is to entice them to come in and spend some of their money in my store. The restaurants and bars have generally benefited from the Bike Fest and the organizer, the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, has gone out of its way to get the downtown business community involved this year.
The third group of events are the downtown events that require road closures, generally Main from Bank to Adams and Grand from the lake south to Delaware. The recent Night In The Tropics is a good example of this configuration. These events are potentially either the most disruptive or the most helpful, depending on how they are configured.
Downtown cruise-ins and car shows typically take up the parking spaces, but leave the middle of the road and the sidewalks open for foot traffic. Like the Bike Fest, some of these events have provided a significant revenue bump for the local restaurants and bars.
The Night In The Tropics and a few other events we’ve had downtown have set up vendor tents on the sidewalks and the sides of the streets, blocking access to the local businesses. This doesn’t have to be the case. While a lane on Main Street needs to be kept open for emergency traffic, there is absolutely no reason why vendor tents couldn’t be set up smack down the middle of Grand, routing the the event foot traffic to the outsides and right in front of the businesses. These businesses need to be encouraged to schedule special store hours to coincide with the events.
The fourth group of events are the races. The best known of these is the Rap River Run, although there are a number of others, including the upcoming Gear Link Criterium Races in October. With the exception of the Gear Link event, the road closures are early in the morning and have a minimal impact on local businesses or the residents of the neighborhoods the races pass through.
Much like the events in the parks, more could be done to create commercial tie-ins with local businesses, particularly the restaurants. The demographic profile of the racers fits one we want to encourage to come downtown. The typical triathlete has a six figure income. The typical bicycle in the Gear Link Criterium costs several thousand dollars. The person who will drop $25 or $30 to register for a 5k event isn’t going to think twice about spending that or more for dinner.
The fifth group of events are the ones held on Railroad Square or Cavalier Square.
Cavalier Square is probably the most underutilized park in the city. It is well hidden and it has been a while since the last special event was held there. The Dulcet Restaurant is currently in talks with the city about leasing Cavalier Square for outdoor dining and entertainment.
The city spent something in the neighborhood of a million dollars streetscaping Railroad Square and installing railroad crossing arms that can be used to block off car traffic during events. Greater New Port Richey Main Street has held some First Friday Farmers Markets there and a couple of special events this past spring were sponsored by the bars (First Down Sports Bar and Fitzgeralds).
The sixth type of events are parades. Generally speaking, there are three parades that go through the downtown each year.
The Gulf High Homecoming parade is relatively small and only disrupts traffic for a few minutes at any given location.
The Holiday Rotary’s Christmas Parade is quite a bit larger and attracts a decent size crowd. This event is held in the evening and doesn’t have an adverse impact on downtown businesses other than creating some parking issues as the barricades go up before the parade. Some of the families coming to town for the parade can be counted on to visit the local restaurants.
Unfortunately, more than a few folks come down to the Christmas parade with the idea that it is best enjoyed while under the influence. We routinely have to clean up all the beer cans left behind. The choice of music by some of the parade units also leaves something to be desired (eg. “Ride Sally Ride”, the lyrics of which involve trying to convince Sally to take of her clothes and lie down on the couch). Not exactly the sort of Christmas music I remember when I was growing up.
The third annual parade is the Chasco Fiesta street parade. For all intents and purposes, the downtown comes to a complete standstill on Chasco parade day. You simply can’t move. The parade is huge (often three hours or more in length) and, between the beads and krews that bring their party floats, has taken on a bit of a Mardi Gras flavor. The parade is extremely popular and people start staking out places along the route days in advance.
Unfortunately, quite a few people bring their coolers and start on their favorite adult beverages hours before the parade arrives. Alcohol abuse during the street parade is well recognized and the Chasco Fiesta organizers wisely avoid contributing to the problem by not selling beer in the park on parade Saturday.
So what do we get from all of this?
Many of the events in the park, including the Chasco Fiesta, bring in some amazing musical acts. These events showcase local talent, bring in some up and coming recording artists, and some of the groups I remember from years ago. These events are a good part of what makes New Port Richey what it is. They provide both great entertainment and often help fund some very worthy local non-profits. What they don’t do is provide much of an economic boost for the downtown business community. We either need to agree that we are okay with that or work with event organizers to better promote local businesses.
The races are relatively low impact and bring a lot of folks to town. The athletes typically have lots of disposable income and we need to find ways to get them to spend some of that income here.
Street Parties like Night In The Tropics and Bike Fest, as well as car shows can be positive draws to the downtown. They are relatively low impact and could be made to showcase the downtown businesses with a little coordination between the organizers and local businesses.
We need to re-think what we want our parades to look like. In my opinion, the transition of both the Chasco and Christmas parades from local floats to professional floats from out of town has not necessarily been an improvement.
I plan to address the general issue of alcohol and special events in the coming weeks, but allow me to make one rather bold proposal this week: The city should promote regular block parties in Railroad Square with specific provision made to allow folks to walk out of the adjacent bars without fear of being arrested for carrying an open container.
If the bars want to pony up for outdoor entertainment, let them set up stages at either end of the Square. Otherwise, just set up extra tables and chairs in the street and chill out.
Allowing monthly or even weekly block parties on Railroad Square will require some adjustments in the city’s alcohol ordinance, but that is coming up for discussion next month anyway.
Using Railroad Square for regular block parties would do more to cement New Port Richey as a downtown entertainment destination than anything else I can think of. Use of the section between Grand and Adams would require almost no city services as volunteers could be taught how to drop the crossing arms. Expanding the party from Grand toward Bank would require some minimal traffic control by the police department and public works.
Finally, if our goal is economic development, perhaps there are better ways to spend our money than on special events. Some of the events are worth supporting as valuable parts of our cultural mix, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that they are going to solve the issue of attracting businesses downtown.
In response to the city’s financial problems during the Great Recession, we axed financial support that was supposed to pay for Greater New Port Richey Main Street to implement the Main Street Program, forcing them to concentrate on fund raising by holding more special events and essentially ignoring everything else. We compounded the problem by cutting back on event support, telling the event organizers they could make it up by selling booze in the park. In 20/20 hindsight, things didn’t work out the way we expected. I believe we need to revisit both of these decisions.
As always, unless you are a fellow council member, I’d love to hear your comments. In deference to Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws, my colleagues need to wait for a public meeting to talk to me about anything I write here.
Rob Marlowe, Mayor
City of New Port Richey