Event angst: Pros, cons of closing streets

Communities that have few want more, and communities that have more want even more. So where’s the rub in Durango?

You’ll not find disagreement from pro or con that special events do attract people into a community’s downtown, creating and maintaining an atmosphere of social vitality. After all, a downtown is every community’s living room and where visitors experience the city’s vibe.

Crowd theory says events also produce incremental economic vitality now or in the future. That part of the theory is debatable.

For some businesses, extra foot traffic outside one’s establishment produces extra business on the very day of the event. For others, a special-interest event crowd or a street closing may mean little or no business that very day. The wager is that some percentage of incremental local and out-of-area event attendees does return to shop or dine another day.

The growth of sales tax generated from the business sectors of the Central Business District suggests that downtown’s current mix of vitality and economy is, for the most part, working.

So much for the theory part, what about practice?

Event organizers have goals. They hold events for public exposure for their organization, profits from vendor space or sale of food and drink, or sports competitions knowing that events held downtown draw the largest crowds. They often assume all downtown retailers want incremental foot traffic brought right to their doorstep, but that’s not the case across the spectrum of retailers mostly determined store-by-store on what a retailer is selling. It’s a big plus for everybody that the majority of downtown events do not require any street closures.

Either way, when a segment of the business community believes events are damaging to its business, then that issue needs to be publicly examined.

To consider making changes, the discussion must be narrowed to specifics. First, define “event.” This year, eight permitted parades have used Main Avenue, a number that has remained constant for the last several years. No current opposition to parades indicates that “problematic events’ means those that close streets for hours at a time.

Which streets, all streets? Main Avenue closures in particular are under the microscope. In 2012, portions of Main (500 block to 1200 block) were closed six times for annually held events, (Taste of Durango, Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, Motor Expo/DaddyFest, July 4, Fiesta, Oktoberfest) and four times for special nonannual events (Can-Am, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Capitol Christmas Tree), the same total number as in 2010.

More use of alternative venues does take pressure off Main Avenue. East Second Avenue was closed twice this year for events (Autumn Art and Tug), and it is a viable alternative as long as businesses on East Second Avenue agree. Likewise, Eighth Street hosted one event (Coffee) this year. Private locations, such as bank parking lots are viable if the landowner is willing to accept some liability risk.

Use of Buckley Park (a Durango School District 9-R property) continues to increase. It hosts more than a dozen events annually, but when alcohol sales are requested by the event organizer, then the 1200 block of Main Avenue is closed (four closures) to accommodate food tents and beer gardens. The city and the school district are in negotiations on a long-term lease agreement that could open Buckley Park for all approved uses, thus reducing the need to close the 1200 block of Main.

All this means events must be somewhere, and Durango is short on downtown locations acceptable to everyone all the time.

To be clear, the city does not per se put on events, tell event organizers where to hold their events or how to run them. Of the entire event calendar (150-plus events), the city hosts only the Fourth of July street dance that comes after the parade and before the fireworks. The Business Improvement District, likewise, does not hold events; it helps promote events locally and grants out-of-area marketing funds intended to attract new visitors to Durango.

An organized city permitting process is in place. The independent event organizer or nonprofit submits a special-event permit to the city and a liquor-license permit to the state through the city.

City staff asks questions about the appropriateness of the desired venue, liquor control, recycling, security, noise and sanitation, and offers advice on planning, budgeting, marketing and executing a successful and safe event.

Several city departments review and sign off on the application. If there are no grounds on which to deny a permit (such as code or liquor-license violation, negative public complaints, public safety or a majority opposition from local business) the permit, in most cases, is approved.

The most direct remedy for event-location conflicts is when concerned merchants speak directly to the event organizers and conflicts are worked out.

The city plans to keep the lines of communication open with downtown merchants both pro and con, and the nonprofit groups who depend on these special events as a means to finance their organizations.

By listening to each other and working together, we can develop a win-win-win partnership for success. Reasonable compromises and creative solutions are the way.

kunkelra@cidurango.co.us Bob Kunkel is downtown business development manager for the city of Durango.

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