With the announcement that BBQ, Bands & Bikes will not return this year, some downtown businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, are regretting the decision.
Stacy Reynolds, co-owner of Bourbon Barrel Tavern and former director of the Elizabethtown Heritage Council, which once sponsored the festival, said the Saturday of the festival was a record-breaking day for the local bar and its employees.
“We’re going to miss him,” he said. “This is the biggest day for many companies here.
“I hate it because of the companies that aren’t going to have that big of an economic impact,” he added. “We are coming after two years of COVID. I hate it for the hospitality industry. To take that away, I feel like it’s a little bit of a stab in the back, especially since it wasn’t discussed with anyone.”
It’s also a record day in sales for Original Impellizzeri’s Pizza and JR Neighbors, two local restaurants downtown, said general manager Robin Monroe.
“It’s one of the busiest days of the year so you know you don’t have to look forward to it,” she said, adding that businesses will adjust to fill the gap. “We’re a little busy though, so we’ll get on with it. We will endure.”
One retail outlet that benefited from that exposure was Clobberin’ Comics.
Co-owner Tommy Crain said that while sales were good – they saw a 20% increase over other Saturdays – the intangible value the store received from traffic, Google reviews, exposure and social media posts was invaluable.
“Every event we get, ‘We didn’t know you were all here,'” he said. “We might not spend a ton of money, but they know we’re here now.”
Co-owner Clinton Dalton agreed and said no other weekend has generated the kind of foot traffic the store has seen during BBQ, Bands & Bikes.
“It’s not 10 times as many people or 20 times as many people,” he said. “That’s 100 times more people and that exposure for a small business is invaluable.”
Opening in May 2021, Sweet Tea and Grace on the square saw an exponential increase in business over Memorial Day weekend, about 200% thanks to specially designed themed shirts that owner Karen Whitlock made to order.
“The biggest thing I noticed was that it was people from out of town,” she said. “The traffic wasn’t just local people — we value our local customers, we love our friends — but it’s nice to have the boost of 1,000 people coming into your store who have never been here before. … It’s disappointing to lose that traffic of people who wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
But because of the traffic and the large number of people, Running Soles does not open that weekend, opting instead for a family vacation, said co-owner Madeline Rivera.
“We really don’t get a lot of foot traffic,” she said, adding that they haven’t opened that weekend in several years. “Our customers can’t get to us because of the parking lot, so we really don’t work that day.”
Mayor Jeff Gregory said he supported the decision to cancel.
“I was not pleased to make this decision,” he said, adding that it was a difficult choice. “It was just one where you weigh the pros and cons, and the cons greatly outweighed the pros.”
The biggest concern for Gregory and city officials was the threat to pedestrian safety.
On top of a report that Police Chief Jeremy Thompson gave to the city council on Monday, which highlighted two arrests and another case in which a person pulled a gun, Gregory on Thursday detailed a list of other safety issues, which he said further show that the event changed into something that should never have been.
Some of these included multiple vendors leaving early and later complaining that “it seemed like a debaucherous, drunken party was going on;” police identify seven criminal motorcycle gangs; racial slurs directed at a participant by a member of a swastika motorcycle gang; a city official intercepts two drunken women being followed by a man in the alley and intervenes; and a drawn gun that was about 25 feet from the children’s area, Gregory said.
On top of the safety concerns, Gregory said the city lost more than $50,000 on this year’s festival.
According to city records, the festival generated $66,702 in revenue while spending $118,289, the bulk of which was $26,537 for advertising, $24,900 for contractors and $21,773 for overtime pay for city employees who worked the event.
“The last thing we want to do in this city is have someone get hurt at an event that’s changed from what it was originally intended to be and we also lose $51,000,” he said. “How much sense does that make?”
Although the decision was not based on money, but on safety, Gregory said any city-sponsored event is most likely a financial loss.
“Any event we organize is not a win-win for us or for the city administration,” he said. “It’s a loser. We expect to lose some because it is a quality of life experience for the community.
“So we don’t worry about how much we will lose,” he added. “But to have the problems we have and then lose that amount of money, it’s hard to fathom.”
While downtown business owners agree that safety is a priority, they felt the cancellation might be premature.
“If it’s really unsafe, obviously people’s lives are more important than anything else,” Whitlock said. “My perception was none of that. I thought that as successful as the event was, it deserved a discussion instead of just being canceled.
“It’s just disappointing that you give up on something instead of trying to fix it,” she added.
While Dalton understood the security concerns, he felt other actions could be taken before canceling the successful downtown event.
“Just because two people acted stupid is no reason to cancel thousands of dollars in revenue (for local businesses),” he said, suggesting a shift to beer, blues and barbecue events. “We know this is a guaranteed draw.”
Reynolds said much of what city officials were concerned about could have been addressed without the cancellation.
“Some of those items that I read about from that meeting are things that I was not familiar with or had not heard of,” he said. “I know as a bar owner that that evening is very busy, even after the breakup of the festival, we are packed.”
Reynolds said he believes city officials were looking for a reason to cancel an event they didn’t enjoy working on.
“I think the individuals who made the decision to cancel the festival wanted to cancel the festival,” he said. “And when you want something badly enough, you’ll find reasons to support your position.”
As the city turns to a more family-friendly festival this fall with the reinvention of the Heartland Festival, Whitlock doesn’t see it having the same effect on her business.
“I think it’s going to be great for the community and it’s something the community wants, but most of the people who go to the city festival are locals … but I don’t think people are going to come from Florida to our county’s fall festival,” she said. “I’m excited about the Heartland Festival coming back, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for the festival, I think it should be complementary.”
“We’re just not going to be able to replace it,” he told BBQ, Bands & Bikes. “I highly doubt it. That’s just me, but I might be pleasantly surprised. I’ll believe it when I see it.”