Merchants to Rock Around the Block Organizers: “We Might As Well Close Up Shop”

By Patty Wetli | Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer festivals bring out the NIMBY in all of us. Credit: Flickr/FooBarDude.

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

At a public forum held last Thursday at the Lincoln-Belmont Library (1659 W. Montrose), West Lakeview Neighbors and Star Events invited comment from local residents and business owners regarding this weekend’s upcoming Rock Around the Block festival, July 7 -8. And by “comment” we mean “complaints,” of which they received an earful, particularly from decidedly unhappy merchants.

RATB, long a neighborhood staple, has had a rough go of late, switching locations to placate residents and benched last year for lack of a neighborhood sponsor. Re-booting the franchise, with WLVN as the non-profit beneficiary, proved more challenging than expected; an apparent lack of coordination among the organizers left a number of business owners within the fest’s footprint completely in the dark and scrambling to accommodate street closures and an anticipated influx of 20,000 visitors just days before the event.

“I visited 19 businesses on Tuesday, up and down Lincoln,” said Justin Clifford, president of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce executive board. Many were unaware of the fest’s boundaries, 3200 – 3400 N. Lincoln Ave., until Clifford came calling. “Over and over, the common thread was, ‘We have no time to prepare.’”

“If I had known, I would have cancelled my classes,” said Meg Franklin, manager of Be By Baby, 1654 W. Roscoe St., who was concerned that parents with newborns would be blocked from parking anywhere near the shop. “Nobody came by. I found out from Dinkel’s yesterday.”

“The communication has been horrible,” summed up Luke Karl, general manager of Dinkel’s Bakery, 3329 N. Lincoln Ave. He faces thousands of dollars of lost revenue with RATB outside his front door, noting that beer and pastries seldom go hand in hand. “If I’m open, I’m going to be half-staffed,” he said, “or I tell everybody they’re not working.”

Charlene Steele, owner of Caravan Beads (3339 N. Lincoln Ave.), was in a similar bind. “I just found out,” she said, of the fest’s parameters. “These festivals are so disruptive, nobody comes in our shop. That’s a lot of money we lose. We might as well close up shop.”

With enough advanced notice, she could have boosted sales by participating in the festival, a sentiment shared by Jeff Mazza, co-owner of New England Seafood Company (3341 N. Lincoln). “We would have loved to have a booth,” he said.

There was plenty of finger pointing to go around at WLVN, Star and even the Lakeview Chamber for failing to adequately spread the word among businesses, with John Barry, founder and CEO of Star Events, ultimately accepting blame. “I fell short,” he said. “A, I’m sorry; B, what can I do to invite you out; and C, how can I make it better for next year?”

For Mazza and Steele, the answer to “B” was quite simple: Get us a booth. Barry vowed to accommodate the late entries with free space while talking up the festival’s “residual benefits” to the other disgruntled merchants. Eighty percent of RATB attendees live within the neighborhood, he said, and while they might not make a purchase during the festival, they’re more likely to return at a later date having been exposed to the shops.

Promoting, not hindering West Lakeview businesses is, after all, one of the primary goals of the festival.

“We want people to know there’s life beyond Southport and Roscoe Village,” said Stacey Paradis, WLVN vice president. While it’s “very unfortunate we’ve had miscommunication,” she added that residents overwhelmingly supported the festival at previous WLVN gatherings.”We are doing our best. We’ve been as open as we can.”

Paying close attention to the proceedings was Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), home to RATB until the ward remap takes effect and the territory moves into Ald. Ameya Pawar’s 47th Ward. Waguespack has capped special events in his ward at 30, weighing the positives and negatives of each.

“The calculus is, is there enough benefit,” Sajovec said. “The thing about all these special events is the tension between businesses that make out like a bandit and the ones that don’t.” If feedback shows that the majority of residents and merchants say RATB is not worth the effort, “the alderman is OK if it goes away.”

It was, most importantly, WLVN’s involvement that convinced Waguespack to give RATB another chance, and the potential to put money back in the community. When the Lakeview Chamber bowed out of the event some years ago, Star stepped in with a creation of its own making, the Festival Foundation, according to Sajovec. (In exchange for closing streets, festivals must make a minimum donation to a nonprofit.)

“There needs to be somebody local who’s got skin in the game,” he said. “West Lakeview Neighbors stepped up–that’s the number one thing for the alderman.” As sponsor, WLVN will receive $5,000, plus 20 percent of any profits. (Barry warned, “These aren’t cash cows anymore. It’s not going to be a windfall.”) In the past, these dollars have been distributed to schools, parks and the library.

Though at one point during the meeting Barry conceded, “I don’t know how I can make you happy,” most business owners left in a better frame of mind than when they arrived.

“Let’s try to make lemonade out of lemons; there’s no turning back at this point,” said Weslie Bellini, owner of Fizz Bar & Grill (3220 N. Lincoln Ave.), one of the rare merchants likely to profit from the fest. “We need to stick together. It’s a lot of work for us at Fizz but hopefully it brings people back to make it a destination spot.”

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