First Fridays are about to start, and they come with something new this year:
A beer garden on Monument Square.
The issue is summed up by a First Fridays poster taped to the the window of Common Scents on Main Street: The poster's bottom corner has been neatly trimmed off. The corner that used to say: HarborFest Beer Garden at Monument Square.
The beer garden, to be run by HarborFest (with 25% of the profits going to the Downtown Racine Corporation), was a last-minute addition to the First Fridays activities, which in past years has included extended shopping hours downtown on the first Friday of every month from April through September; music on Sixth Street, Main Street and inside some stores; horse-drawn carriage rides and wine and hors d'oeuvres at some stores.
This year's first First Friday is April 4. Schedule is HERE.The phone lines between merchants started burning up as soon as the poster was distributed. Before they saw the poster, none of the merchants had any inkling there would be a beer garden this year. Now that they know, some are not happy about it.
The gist of the dispute is this: First Fridays is a family, retail shopping event. Encouraging people to sit and drink beer on Monument Square, they fear, will either drive families away, or at the very least provide something that keeps potential shoppers from wandering around the shops downtown. And it is the shopping that First Fridays was created for: it is an event organized and supported by the retailers themselves, some 43 of whom this year ponied up $200 each to pay for the musicians, posters, horse-drawn carriage and advertising.
Nobody I spoke to objects to HarborFest; a few question why DRC should benefit, since the lion's share of the event's costs are borne by the merchants. But the core objection is that the beer garden will change the focus of the event, and detract from its main purpose: shopping downtown.
As Doug Wick, owner of Common Scents said, "It's moving away from the idea of bringing people to our shops, in favor of getting people more hammered. This steps over into a party event, rather than a retailer event."
Wick, whose father opened a photo studio on Main Street in 1947, and who has operated his own connected trio of shops -- Pack 'n Ship, Common Scents and Wick's Photo Studio -- since 1986, said, "In a nutshell, this takes away from the restaurants and bars, and detracts from the retailers who are the only reason there's a downtown. The little retailer is the blood flow of downtown."
It's not at all about HarborFest, he made clear. "I sympathize with the effort of HarborFest, because it's a great event." (Financial difficulties have cancelled this year's HarborFest, although organizers promise it will be back in 2009.)
For the most part, other retailers I spoke to see the beer garden the same way; a few are reserving judgment and one bar owner didn't see any problem.
Sherry Etes, owner of Uncorkt, is the merchant most in favor of the beer garden. As the one-woman committee handling all the details of this year's First Fridays events it was her decision. "It was never intended to be a drunk fest," she said.
Etes defended both HarborFest ("It's a good cause; it helps out the city, raising money for lots of good events like the Theatre Guild and Jeans Jazz.") and DRC which, she said, "is a huge supporter of First Fridays," paying for radio advertising, mailings and providing the Ambassadors.
She explained that Joe Mooney, president of HarborFest, proposed the beer garden to her and Devin Sutherland, executive director of DRC, "at the last minute. If I thought it would be unsettling, I never would have gone there," she said.
Still, listening to the objections she's heard, she said, "If the beer garden doesn't work, we can cut it off after the first one. Bringing people downtown, that's a good thing. If it's going the wrong way, it will be shut down."