Downtown merchants, pop-up vendors and food truck owners are preparing for what one organizer described as the largest Small Business Saturday event in East Tennessee.

The Maryville Police Department will close Broadway Avenue to traffic Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to allow 77 local craft vendors to set up booths on the street for the 3rd Annual Downtown Holiday Craft Market and Small Business Saturday event. This year Tickled Orange Photobooth and Simply Greater Designs also have teamed up to provide free photos with Santa Claus.

“Downtown is in transition, and we’re really trying to get people down here,” said event founder, organizer and small business owner Kate Kilgore. “Our community loves craft markets, and this gives them something to do downtown.”

But the Craft Fair is only part of the larger Small Business Saturday phenomenon that promotes small businesses that in the past have been lost between the massive Black Friday and Cyber Monday holiday shopping days.

“Small business is the heart of the economy, and Blount County is full of small business people,” explained Jeff Muir, communications director of the Blount Partnership. “Every dollar you spend locally stays here in Blount County.”

Small idea that grew

The Small Business Saturday concept was born in 2010 when American Express launched a national campaign to promote small businesses in the United States. It ran television, radio and newspaper ads urging Americans to shop local, and it worked.

In fact, it worked so well that elected officials in Washington state teamed up with President Obama to officially endorse Small Business Saturday in that state, which gave the concept more traction. After the second Small Business Saturday, the National Federation of Independent Business reported $5.5 billion dollars was spent at locally owned businesses nationwide.

By the time the Small Business Administration joined the effort though, Small Business Saturday became a nationally noteworthy event where in 2018 nearly $16 billion was spent.

Consumer awareness increased as well.

In the annual Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey conducted by the NFIB and American Express, 72% of consumers said they knew about Small Business Saturday and believed it helped their communities grow.

Five years ago the Blount Partnership also began talking about how it could support small businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

“We promote Chamber of Commerce members who are offering special deals on Small Business Saturday,” Muir said.

It does that by sending mass emails to Chamber members asking them to turn out and support local businesses. Officials also use an electronic billboard on Alcoa Highway to promote individual businesses and their special Saturday deals. And the Chamber provides displays, window stickers and social media advertising to further promote the sales event.

But the Downtown Crafts Fair was small for the first two years, Kilgore said.

“The Craft Fair started off as a crazy idea,” she explained. “The first year, the city wouldn’t allow vendors to set up on the street, so a handful of downtown business owners hosted vendors inside their stores.”

But by the third year, the city of Maryville recognized the event’s positive impact and allowed vendors to set up on the street.

“We closed half the street at first,” said Downtown Maryville Association member Aaron Killian. “Within 10 minutes, the police had to close both sides because there were so many people. This year we’re closing both sides from Boyd Thomas all the way to CBBC Bank.”

They have good reason to be confident in that decision.

The Downtown Maryville Association’s Facebook post announcing the Craft Fair showed more than 10,000 people expressed interest in attending the event. And if all those people show up, Killian pointed out, the local businesses downtown should be in good spirits by the close of the fiscal year.

Muir said the impact of all these efforts hasn’t been measured in detail by the Chamber of Commerce; however, anecdotally local business owners report that Small Business Saturday has become their largest business day.

“We had just barely opened Tri-Hop last year, so nobody really knew who we were,” said Matt Tipton, co-owner of the Tri-Hop Brewery on Court Street, which is a block away from Broadway. “We weren’t even prepared for the number of people who stopped in that day. We’re really hoping to see a bump in business this weekend, too.”

Added Killian: “I’d love to see this grow to include 150 to 200 vendors. In fact, it could one day be big enough that we close the streets all the way over to the courthouse and the library.”

Kilgore, who started this event, agrees.

“I love seeing people downtown,” she said with a big grin. “The more the better, but for now, we’re focusing on adding one big thing each year. This year it’s photos with Santa. Who knows what we’ll come up with next year?”

As for the Chamber of Commerce, Muir said participation in Small Business Saturday has grown every year, so it looks forward to building on that growth.

“We’d love to get more small businesses involved,” he said. “Each year we send out and email to our members asking if they will be offering special deals on Small Business Saturday. All they have to do is let us know, and we’ll start promoting it.”

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