Sixth Street Blues
Downtown festivals cramp merchants' style
It's no secret that Sixth Street is one of Austin's most unique areas -- a downtown mecca for restaurants, bars, music venues, homes and assorted retail outlets -- most of whose owners say they have managed to coexist fairly well over the years, given their diversity. But a pocket of Sixth street merchants and homeowners contend that the area's diversity, as well as their very livelihoods, are routinely threatened by the influx of carpetbagging competition and inconvenienced regular customers that have come to be associated with the periodic street closures of Sixth Street for festivals, fairs and convention parties. They complain about a rigged system that virtually guarantees that closures win neighborhood approval, about admission charges that discourage their regular clients, and about the for-profit nature of the closures that brings a lot of money to the events' organizers, but translates into nothing but disruptions and headaches for the street's property tax-paying business owners.
Pascal Regimbeau, who owns Chez Nous, just off Sixth Street, estimates that his restaurant loses between $1,000-$3,000 with each of the street's almost monthly closures. "A few weekends a year we can manage, and attempt to budget our business," he says. "Any more that that and you're killing the weekend business we need to survive."
"A lot of these festivals bring in a narrow group of people," adds Richard Aleksander, a Sixth Street gallery owner. "So many are geared toward 19-year-olds and alcohol, tobacco and tattoos. And something like the Harley Davidson (motorcycle convention) closing can't be good for anyone else. How can they carry purchases away? These kind of things keep our customers out and replace them with people we have no need for."
In response to such complaints, Austin's Department of Public Works and Transportation has asked the city council to strengthen the city's street closure ordinance. To gather public input, last November the council appointed a15-member Street Closure Task Force, stacked with people on both sides of the issue who are in some way connected to or affected by the Sixth Street closures, either as property owners, club managers, or promoters. Although their officially stated purpose is to draft and recommend an ordinance to the city council governing all public streets -- which would include the orchestration and execution of neighborhood events, block parties and festivals in other locales -- the task force's discussion has thus far been almost exclusively focused on Sixth Street. And the individual who has fallen into the eye of the committee's storm is French Smith.
As head of Roadstar Productions Inc., Smith has promoted special events on Sixth Street for 18 years -- including festivals that pre-date the last revision of the Street Closure For Non-Construction ordinance in 1979. He points out that he was granted only four permits to close Sixth Street last year: two for Pecan Street Festivals and one each for the Victorian Christmas and the Swamp Romp. However, Smith or Roadstar's agents also act as consultants or sub-contractors on a number of other Sixth Street events. And by all accounts, including that of Public Works, Smith's events have always been predictably safe and well cleaned-up-after. But some Sixth Street merchants and homeowners say that when you add Smith's annual schedule to other events like Hoop-It-Up, Spamarama and closures for beautician and motorcycle conventions, there's a noticeable monthly disruption to normal business that, they say, far outweighs the value of the people the activities attract.
Smith claims that the negative attention he has received is nothing more than the result of old-fashioned competition. "So many people are competing for the same dollar down there, that there's trouble with some of the businesses," says Smith. "It's easy to look for a scapegoat and find me."
But Smith's critics say there's more to it than the competition his festivals bring downtown. They contend that Smith is in collusion with the East Sixth Street Community Association (ESSCA) to gain the necessary approvals to stage his annual festivals. Public Works Traffic Control Supervisor Garry Silagi says that although it's not written in the current ordinance, the city requires applicants to obtain approvals from 80% of the property owners on the streets they want to close. That percentage appears high, but detractors have complained to the task force that promoters like Smith are virtually guaranteed a block of suppport from ESSCA, which represents about 60 or 70 of the street's 100 or so property owners. What is expecially troubling to some is that Smith's Roadstar Productions pays ESSCA a percentage of each event's profits -- in exchange, he says, for market research, consulting, and feedback.
Michael Shelton, co-owner of Esther's Follies, contends that ESSCA is straying 180 degrees from its original purpose. "ESSCA formed five years ago in response to a French Smith plan to charge for a Sixth Street Halloween event, and [worked with area businesses] to have it shot down," says Shelton. "That's why it's so bizarre that a couple of years later [ESSCA] would be pushing for such similar paid events. But with the success of Pecan Street [Festival], ESSCA realized they could make a lot of money, and it's the only way they could -- as an organization of merchants. Meanwhile, the merchants are suffering."
ESSCA president and task force member Bob Woody confirms that Smith and other promoters bring ideas for proposed events to the association for approval, and adds that most events only proceed after the democratic group of merchants say they believe a majority of the street will support it. Woody says ESSCA's primary festival-related goal is to back events that provide entertainment and attraction on Sixth Street during slow periods. The money ESSCA receives from Smith -- usually one-half to one-third of the profits -- goes to the non-profit association for printing tourist maps that highlight the downtown area, Woody says.
Shelton's business partner in Esther's Follies, Shannon Sedwick, who is chair of the Street Closure Task Force, also has a problem with how Smith counts votes for his street closures. Although many of Smith's events near a 90% approval mark, she believes that Smith's most controversial event, the second Music & Heritage Festival in 1995, which caused disruptions at several businesses, would not have been approved had the property owners he listed as non-responses been counted as "not approving" rather than going discarded. Furthermore, some on the task force have charged that Smith and his employees purposely fail to contact businesses they feel won't be sympathetic to a closing.
Smith compares the votes that were not counted to a political election, but one in which the voters get several chances. "It's a very simple scenario, much like if you didn't vote for the governor," says Smith. "They had the opportunity to vote and didn't, so the vote is not counted. We document each time we go by a place of business and try, ten or fifteen times in some instances. It's our position and the city's position that these are not (no votes), because they never exercised their right to vote."
Others complained to the task force during a public forum last month that certain businesses have either been paid to vote affirmatively, or been compensated to stay in the festival. As evidence, critics point to Roadstar's documented payments to the Junior League and Southern Investments. However, Smith counters that the payments were for parking and equipment storage for Roadstar on the businesses' adjacent parking lots.
Critics also question why Smith paid club owners cash before and after the Heritage festivals. Smith says those payments have been misconstrued. "Because the Heritage festivals were at night, we arranged with the participating clubs for a one-time cover by paying the clubs the talent costs to offset what would've been their usual income from their own individual covers. Then, we made available payments, with ESSCA approvals, that opened the doors for businesses to come to us and say, `We lost money and you made a lot, can you help us?' These payments were after the fact and in no way could've secured votes."
And although Sedwick says she'd like to see provisions in the task force's ordinance barring promoters who are found paying off clubs from being granted future closures, Public Works' Silagi contends his office can't worry about any street approval issues other than random verification. "From the city standpoint, we can only verify the lists and check randomly for forged signatures. But we can't logistically be concerned with how they're obtained, be it with money, promises, or what-not," says Silagi.
By far the most common complaint by anti-closure forces is that the admission fees charged by organizers drive away their regular customers. At the task force's public forum, nearly a dozen street closure critics cited the issue, complaining that their restaurant and bar businesses are hurt when patrons with their destinations in mind are required to pay a $3-8 admission charge on top of their regular cover, meal, or alcohol tab. They say it's unreasonable for the city to allow promoters to charge the public to walk on a street that merchants and property owners pay rent and/or taxes to use year-round. But promoters like Smith and Direct Events owner Tim O'Connor, who also owns the Austin Music Hall, say that without admission fees, entertainment costs run too high to supply big-name musical talent. "If you can't close city streets without charging a fee, you can't do them," says O'Connor. "It's that simple, and if the Live Music Capital of the World continues to move forward (to stop the practice) on all these fronts, there's going to be a problem."
Smith adds that paying to walk on Sixth should be no more controversial than paying to attend public facilities like Auditorium Shores or Palmer Auditorium. "And if someone says they want to eat at Paradise and leave, we charge them the admission, put a time on the back and refund their money when they return. It's an amiable system and very little trouble." However, it's also a system that Sedwick finds insulting, and compares it to "getting a note from mommy." At present, Public Works requires that promoters holding pay events post signs to indicate that there's no admission charge to frequent a particular bar or restaurant, but Silagi says both the postings and enforcement have been inconsistent at best over the years.
One event that does not involve Smith, but has street-closure critics in an uproar over the for-profit nature of many events, is the annual Hoop-It-Up, which brings 800 teams at a $10 fee each, and an array of big-money corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola. Both Chez Nous' Regimbeau and gallery owner Aleksander call Hoop-It-Up a downtown "space-waster," contending that the amateur sporting event earns high payouts off the city's streets and the merchants' inconvenience. "They're making upwards of $200,000 for a weekend of street basketball and paying the city well under $400," says Aleksander. "And in the process they've put 50 businesses out of business for two days."
One such business that has appeared in front of both the task force and ESSCA to argue her case against Hoop-It-Up is Sue Donahoe's Local Flavor -- a small but popular consignment shop for records and CDs by local musicians. Donahoe maintains that as a business on Fifth Street -- which Hoop-It-Up occupies from Congress to Trinity -- she's unrepresented by ESSCA, who consults for Hoop-It-Up and shares in its profits. Donahoe has warned both groups that her newly formed East Fifth Street Merchants Association won't allow Hoop-It-Up to take over the area again this year. It's her contention that the event sets up directly in front of her store and discourages business -- while also interrupting the normal flow of musicians who rehearse and record in Fifth Street studio and rehearsal spaces. As such, she's suggesting that Hoop-It-Up move to high school, state, or convention parking lots, as they do in other cities.
"Our immediate goal is to get them the hell off our street," says Donahoe. "Hoop-It-Up paralyzes us, but even when you throw our 12 or 13 `no' votes into the mix, ESSCA's got us beat. And in the process, musicians aren't able to rehearse, loan companies are racking up late fees, and travel agents can't get their tickets picked up. But it wouldn't matter if it only affected only one business, it's our damn street."
In response, several ESSCA members have publicly questioned Donahoe's "vigilante" approach and say although she can join ESSCA as an associate member, their organization is indeed set up to protect Sixth Street merchants, not those who work on Fifth Street. "It's the first time I've heard from any of them," says the task force's Betty Jo Summers, a Sixth Street building manager and ESSCA officer, "and this woman comes in screaming. What a cheery attitude. It's all in how you approach people. But ESSCA does not tell Hoop-It-Up where they're going to put their things. That's a matter submitted to the city."
Even streets outside of festival boundaries face a tough situation, adds gallery owner Aleksander. "They'll clear out a couple of hundred parking spaces for the festivals and you don't even get the positives," he says. "Not only don't you have the crowd milling around, but you've got their cars, so your regular customers can't even get in. Just by being on the street, they're taking away access to regular customers."
Lovejoy's Chip Tait, who has a long history of opposing festivals with admissions, says that although he agrees in theory with critics like Aleksander who say that some festivals draw crowds of non-customers and displace regulars, he believes it's still possible to gain a percentage as regular customers from occasional street closures. "Like it or not, the festivals do have an economic impact," Tait says. "Even though 90% that come down may be undesirable and not spend money, 10% might wind up as return business. Even when I had a hard rock stage and Ronnie James Dio a feet away from the door two years ago, I found a group of customers that day that have been here literally every day since."
O'Connor of Direct Events, who promotes events in the Fifth Street warehouse district, says he has been surprised by the complaints brought before the task force. "As a businessman," says O'Connor, "if you told me there would be 30,000 people three times a year in front of my tulip shop, I'd find a way to build my business towards those people." In fact, ESSCA's Woody, who owns Pecan Street Cafe, The Ritz, Shakespeare's and Boar's Head on West Sixth, says that although he believes Pecan Street's cake and wedding business is effected as much as any business on the street, he'll continue to support daytime closures as an ESSCA President and business owner interested in attracting new faces to the street. "A lot the people doing the most complaining are business that don't open until 7pm anyway, so I don't see how they can complain," says Woody.
So while the 15 members of the Street Closure Ordinance Task Force have been sifting through the complaints at public forums and meetings since February, their biggest challenge may be yet to come. The fear is that its final recommendations may be tossed out in the long run. "I'm afraid these people will spend so much time bitching and moaning that they'll have spent all this time creating another pound of unfocused legislation," says Lovejoy's Tait. "They'll hand that to council, who'll agree with what they or Public Works had in mind all along and push them out the door and thank them for being good citizens."
Tait has good reason to worry. Even before they convened the task force last fall, Public Works prepared a draft of a new ordinance that they felt addresses many of the issues. They invited the task force to make recommendations, without promising they won't simply submit this already-drafted proposal to council anyway.
Among Public Works' proposed changes:
* Planning: Double the notification and filing time from 24 to 45 days, with the promoter providing, in advance, a detailed map of fire lanes, booths, stages, portable toilets, and trash containers they'll be using in the area.
* Insurance: Require a certificate of substantial liability insurance -- a controversial issue for small block parties with otherwise low liability costs.
* Police: Use only off-duty APD organizers, with the number of officers and agents required for the closure determined by the Chief of Police.
* Fire: The applicants must meet all requirements of the Uniform Fire Code.
* Fees: Institute a two-tiered plan requiring $50 per street, per day for neighborhood events, and $200 per block, per day for commercial events.
* Approval: Use a sign-off sheet of property owners/ tenants fronting the street(s) to be closed, with a mandatory 80% approval rating from such property owners/tenants.
* Admissions: No fees shall be charged to persons entering the closure area.
Though Public Works' Traffic Control Supervisor Silagi says this is only a draft, several of the proposed changes have already become controversial. Closure supporters question the feasibility of heavy police and insurance demands for neighborhood events, while both sides of the issue contend that there's some confusing language in regards to approval that may make permits either too hard or too easy to obtain. As for the fee increase -- replacing the current across-the-board $50 charge that street closure opponents so often cite as evidence that the city is virtually giving away their streets -- there's unusually consistent support, even from Smith. "There's no question that the $50 figure is outdated," says Smith. "I can close Sixth from Congress to I-35, with the cross streets, for somewhere in the range of $350," Smith says. "I know that $50 doesn't begin to cover Public Works' staff involvement."
Others interested in closing streets worry that the task force is too bogged down in Sixth Street issues to the detriment of the rest of the city. "It sounds like (the task force) was set up for Sixth Street complaints, which is an entirely different issue than closing (any neighborhood) street from 6-7am on a Sunday morning," says Motorola Marathon director Lyle Clugg, who fears the task force could disrupt the procedures of his annual race. "I presented my case, but told them they look like they're there to do a different job."
Austin Music Hall's O'Connor expresses similar concern. "I've gone and reminded the task force that if you put your foot down in one part of Austin, it's going to reverberate everywhere else," he says. And because less than 10% of the annual street closures citywide are on Sixth Street, both sides of the Sixth Street question agree that the concerns of neighborhoods throughout the city need to be considered when dealing with the street closure issues.
Task force chair Sedwick says that she'd like to see the committee offer a two-tiered approach that can concentrate on both Sixth Street problems and neighborhood needs separately but equally. But even Smith concedes that the task force, by its nature, has to grapple with Sixth Street first. "I'm sure this task force came together based on certain controversial events I've promoted," he says.
Although the task force isn't set to give its recommendation for weeks, Sedwick says she's pushing to limit the number of events per street to four to six per year, to beef up police and fire attention, and to set a different fee structure for free and admission-only events.
Many who have watched the task force at work are doubtful that the group can ever agree to any recommendations with its factions so divided -- based on their different closure experiences and needs as local merchants and property owners. "Not only have we lost sight of our goals and thrown the neighborhood baby out with the bath water for Sixth Street's sake, but we began with a mood of talking punitively, as if the task force was out to punish people," says task force and ESSCA member Summer. "There's a vicious group playing into all this, and they're coming to say horrible things that when you investigate them turn out to be half-truths at best. These are people that are coming here not to help their own business, but to tear down and deter other businesses."
So while Sedwick and Smith lobby council members to adopt their own plans, Public Works' Silagi may end up with the last word by sending on to the Council what he believes is a feasible, safe, and legal ordinance proposal. "If they find, on their own, a simplified process where the citizens aren't getting raked over the coals, we'll be satisfied," Silagi says. "We've just got to see how it all plays out." n