Dollars and sense: County businesses get a boost from Foothills Fall Festival-goers
By Steve Wildsmith | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Come Wednesday, Michael Colquitt, owner of Bread of Heaven in Alcoa, will start preparing for the Foothills Fall Festival.
He’ll need roughly 800 to 1,000 pounds of pork, which he’ll smoke, pull and serve up as his famous barbecue sandwiches. He’ll prepare his trailer and get it ready to load into the food court area, just outside of Jack Greene Park, and slide the window open, announcing he’s ready for business, by lunchtime on the Friday the festival begins.
“I’ll kiss my wife and kids goodbye on Friday, because that’s my home for the weekend,” he said with a laugh. “If they’ve got the right lineup, it’ll be huge. It’s a big weekend for me.”
Colquitt’s pulled pork sandwiches are just a small part of the merchandise that will change hands during the course of the three-day event in downtown Maryville, which kicks off this year on Friday, Oct. 11. From the arts and crafts vendors along the ArtWay to the motels on Alcoa Highway to downtown businesses that stay open long after the final acts of the night take the stage, the Foothills Fall Festival is a boon to Blount County businesses, and for good reason: It’s estimated by City of Maryville Community Relations Manager Jane Groff that roughly 75,000 people visit the city during the festival.
And on top of the money they spend on tickets to the concerts, everybody’s got to eat.
“Absolutely it helps us,” said Jacob Slingluff, general manager of Sullivan’s Downtown. “We see a huge increase on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival; I’d say at least 30 percent over every other weekend. It’s an incredible event for Sullivan’s and for downtown in general, and I wish they had more events like it.”
Jeff and Lisa Breazeale, owners of Two Doors Down on East Broadway, also estimate their business increases by at least 30 percent during the weekend of the Foothills Fall Festival. As a bar that features late-night live music, they see a steady influx of patrons after shows at Jack Greene Park come to an end, when festival-goers who aren’t ready to call it a night seek out more entertainment and a little something to quench their thirst.
During the day, business picks up as well, they added.
“A lot of people come in and eat,” Jeff Breazeale said. “They get a pizza or a sandwich, and they watch football. We get a lot of guys who come in to eat and watch football while their wives or girlfriends shop at the arts and crafts stuff.”
Businesses in the immediate downtown area aren’t the only ones that benefit from the festival: According to Blount Partnership Communications Director Jeff Muir, the concentration of people in downtown Maryville tends to have a cascade effect, with those going downtown for festival events, especially visitors from out of town, interested in other activities going on over the weekend.
“How we gauge is from the phone calls to and traffic at our welcome centers in Maryville and Townsend, and we see a significant uptick in people walking through, especially in the week leading up to the festival,” he said. “We get a lot of people from out of town who have heard about it through different avenues and want information on how to get tickets. We get a lot of inquiries from people who have visited this area before and heard about the festival and are wanting to come back for it, and a lot of them want to know what else there is to do while they’re waiting for the shows. It definitely picks up around here.”
This year, a sponsorship grant from the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority gave the city $25,000, a portion of which was used to market the festival in Charlotte, N.C.; Lexington, Ky.; and Cincinnati. The ads started running over the weekend of Sept. 21-22, and Groff said by Monday morning, the festival’s information line was flooded with calls, an indication that the advertising has been effective.
“It used to be that you sold out tickets quicker, but people in this community now have so many things to choose from over that weekend, you’ve got to go farther out,” City Manager Greg McClain said. “We know there’s a tourism component to this, and we know we’re bringing in tourist dollars, so we want to reach out to potential visitors in other markets.”
“It’s a neat marketing opportunity for us,” Groff added. “A lot of people have even told us they’ve wound up moving to Blount County because of the festival, so this is another neat way to show off the city.”
No room in the inn
When out-of-town visitors do descend on Blount County for the event, one thing is guaranteed: They need a place to stay. Area hotels, motels and campsites are quickly running out of rooms, some of which have been booked months in advance.
Mark Chipperfield, of Townsend Great Smokies KOA, told the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority in August that his business was already heavily booked for the festival weekend, with only a few sites left for out-of-town campers.
Calls to area hotels and motels this week confirmed that those who wish to stay in Blount County should probably make reservations sooner rather than later: A reservation spokesperson at Holiday Inn of Alcoa said only a few “double down-and-outs” rooms — those with doors leading both into the hotel and another on the exterior of the building — remain.
Both Mainstay Suites in Springbrook Center in Alcoa and Fairfield Inn on Alcoa Highway across from McGhee Tyson Airport have no vacancy for the festival weekend; Luxbury Inn on West Lamar Alexander Parkway has only two-bedroom suites available.
While those respective businesses profit from the increase in visitors to Blount County, so do local governments: A 5 percent occupancy tax by hotels and motels is paid to Blount County, and according to Blount County Clerk Roy Crawford, that revenue shows a significant increase for the month of October:
• In 2009, the tax brought in $144,543 in September, $126,364 in November and $200,926 for October.
• In 2010, the October occupancy tax revenues were $223,992 for October, vs. $163,754 for September and $139,529 for November.
• For 2011, the occupancy collections for October brought in $244,443 vs. $168,479 for September and $149,749 for November.
• Last year, the tax came to $248,143 for October vs. $172,364 for September and $151,553 for November.
By contrast, occupancy tax revenues to Blount County from October 1999, the year before the festival began, were only $115,000.
“It’s always a big month, and some of that can be considered the start of leaf season, but that’s more into November,” Crawford said. “I think we see a definite increase because of the festival.”
Ask around, and the majority of Blount County residents will lift up the festival as a point of community pride. It’s an opportunity for them to show off their hometown, in much the same way as a proud homeowner holds an open house; it brings in a little glitz and glamour in the form of country stars who occasionally mix and mingle with ordinary folks (Country star John Rich went to Brackins Blues Club after his set several years ago, and Rascal Flatts member Joe Don Rooney told The Daily Times he and his wife look forward to walking around the cities in which the band performs); and it gives local folks a once-a-year opportunity for fun.
Even those who have quibbles with the festival admit that, overall, it’s a positive thing for Blount County.
“There are still thousands of people coming down here, but I’m not seeing what I used to see,” said Anthony White, owner of LaRue’s on Broadway. “I used to see my store filled with people, so many that people were waiting to get in from the beginning to the end. Last year, I had to put forth an effort to get people to come in.”
In 2010, two new city ordinances were passed that require local businesses to apply for a permit in order to set up demonstrations or sell food and merchandise along the sidewalk. City officials point out that in the festival area (on sidewalks and streets outside businesses) the city is liable and responsible for what takes place, and according to them, the idea behind holding an event that attracts quality applicants means the process must be fair and equitable to the vendors. Downtown businesses do receive priority for selection as vendors over other applicants in the food-beverage and arts categories, and those businesses are allowed to do whatever they’d like inside their establishments.
As an example, Groff pointed to Barley’s Maryville, which opened late in the year but has expressed an interest in doing something outside next year. And some businesses owners, like the Breazeales at Two Doors Down, have no problem with the city ordinances.
“Anything that brings this many people to downtown is a good thing, because they’re going to spend their money at local businesses,” Jeff Breazeale said.
White complains that last year, the ArtWay was shifted to West Broadway, leaving East Broadway vacant; however, Downtown Maryville Association President Bob Hirche organized businesses in the downtown area to support an association booth that provided area retailers, restaurants and others businesses an opportunity to spread the word about their particular products and merchandise. One of those business owners, Richard Clear of Clear’s Silat and Street Kung-Fu, was one of the merchants who was vocal about his opposition to the city ordinances when they were first enforced, but last year was better, he said.
“Last year, we were on the road to working together, and we’re hoping we’ll see a continuation this year, but I have yet to hear anything,” Clear said. “I was pleased last year; we definitely made movements toward working together, and we had a dialog between the city and the businesses downtown.”
“The downtown association, led by Bob Hirche, organized and communicated well last year, and we were very pleased with the results,” she said. “They followed the rules and created an energetic environment for their area. We are not aware of any plans the downtown association has for this year but feel sure that everyone who wishes to benefit from the festival will do so by the fact that they will have the opportunity to meet thousands of new potential customers who will be coming in their doors.”
On his end, Hirche said he’s heard nothing negative about this year’s festival, and he believes that for the Downtown Maryville Association as a whole, the festival is a wonderful thing.
“I think everyone is getting along very well,” he said. “Everyone knows what the rules are, and everyone’s able to participate within the confines of those rules. I think we’ve smoothed out the relationships with the businesses located on Broadway, and I think the majority opinion is that everyone benefits from the Foothills Fall Festival. The bottom line, I believe, is that it’s good for everybody.”