Changes are coming to Toad Suck Daze, although not all the ones some downtown business owners wanted.
Sena Crafton, owner of Grand On Oak boutique on Oak Street, and others gathered 40-plus signatures from merchants who said the three-day festival causes a significant loss of revenue for their businesses, citing problems with parking, noise and potential for shoplifting.
Crafton and others reiterated that they don’t want to do away with Toad Suck Daze.
Multiple people who signed the petition expressed a desire to see the festival moved out of downtown to the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds on East Oak Street.
That’s not going to happen, said Brad Lacy, president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corp.
He said the chamber board of directors, in its June meeting, didn’t discuss moving the festival as a viable option.
“I think most people feel like there are some things that are important to the festival, a core value, and those obviously are education, and most people believe that the location is a core value of the festival — that downtown is the place it should be,” Lacy said.
Proceeds from Toad Suck Daze go to scholarships endowments, as well as to Arkansas Preschool Plus, as well as other projects and administrative costs.
“We believe entertainment is a core component of the festival. We also believe it is important to the community,” he said.
The festival, which celebrated its 33rd year in May, brings an estimated 150,000 people to downtown Conway, Lacy said.
Despite that, some merchants say attendees come to enjoy the carnival, vendors and other Toad Suck Daze attractions not for shopping at their businesses during the three-day festival.
Some merchants, including Sherry Smith, co-owner of Fletcher Smith’s Jewelers, said the store’s regular customers are scared off the entire week, as soon as the bleachers are moved to the area and stirrings of Toad Suck Daze start.
Lacy said changes will include a shift in the types of vendors that line Oak Street, with the input of downtown Conway merchants, to make the area “an experience”: moving the kiddie rides to the Faulkner County Courthouse; and waiting until 7 p.m., or later, the day before the festival to block off Oak Street.
The following changes were approved by the chamber board of directors:
• The section of Oak Street east of Front Street will be dedicated as a retail-only destination and made “an experience.”
“This is an idea we talked about initially with Sena and Sherry,” Lacy said. Oak Street now is used during the festival as the business expo.
“There’s not really a reason, if you were shopping at the festival — you’re not going to walk up Oak Street,” he said.
Lacy said the plan is to “shift things around and bring retail to the middle of Oak Street and really focus on making that the retail experience for the festival.”
He said all the retail at the festival wouldn’t move, only selected vendors.
“This is where we had the idea of having a committee of downtown merchants to jury that process to help select who goes there,” Lacy said. “It could be pieces of Toad Market, but it could be extra, bringing in some things we’ve never had.
“If we turn that part of the street into the retail section of the festival, then that gives those retailers additional reasons to be open or do sidewalk sales.
“The vision would be, when I say we want it to be an experience, we don’t just want to throw some tents down there and put some people that sell some stuff. We want some feedback from [the committee]: What do you think it should be? Should it be art? Should it be home accessories?”
Lacy said the committee could be five members; “It might be 10.”
• Have “at least two” downtown merchants — who must be members of the chamber — on the Toad Suck Daze Committee.
Lacy said merchants have been on the Toad Suck Daze Committee before, although there are none now.
He said Erik Sward, co-owner of Bell & Sward Gentleman’s Clothier, which opened in March, and
Colin Stanton, co-owner of Blue Kite Boutique with his wife, Marla, have expressed interest in serving on the committee, but no decisions have been made. Both businesses are on Oak Street.
“We have not been chosen,” Marla Stanton said. “I’m expecting a baby in the fall, so I’m not making any commitment. We definitely want to be involved and help, and do whatever we can, but we have not actually committed to being in one of those positions.”
Stanton, who moved her business to downtown Conway in September 2013, has been through one Toad Suck Daze festival.
“We had a really good turnout,” she said. “We got some new customers out of that weekend.”
Sward said he told Lacy he was interested in possibly serving on the Toad Suck Daze Committee.
“I’ve just expressed that I’d like to talk more about it and understand what the role would be,” Sward said.
Both Marla Stanton and Sward signed the petition.
“When I signed the petition, before I signed it, I said, ‘I’m happy with it; I don’t really have complaints,’” Stanton said.
Stanton said she put her name on the petition “to be included in a discussion” with other merchants.
“We definitely think some things could change to benefit all businesses. It would be more beneficial to me if [all the businesses were] open,” she said.
“I think it’s a good idea to make it where [Oak Street] is a more of an area where people come to directly shop and a way to plug in existing business owners.”
Sward agreed with her.
Sward wrote “move to river or fairgrounds” in the comment section of the petition.
However, Sward said, he later realized that the river “isn’t an option” because traffic would be backed up on the two-lane bridge.
Sward said he also learned that “the infrastructure isn’t there at the fairgrounds to support that.”
Bell & Sward closed during Toad Suck Daze this year, Sward said.
“Being a new store, we didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We’re planning on trying it next year. We’ve kind of been brainstorming.”
Lacy said serving on the Toad Suck Daze Committee is a big responsibility.
“These people meet year-round, and they’re going to be assigned to a subcommittee. It’s a big commitment,” Lacy said. “We could pick two people who say they want to be on it — and this is not toward any person — I know from experience, this is a hardworking committee. We want to take our time. We may do more than two, if there are two, three or four and they’re dying to get on there, and they understand what the commitment is, and they’ll do it,” he said.
• Move the “kiddie rides” from the carnival area to the Toadal Kids Zone section at the Faulkner County Courthouse.
He said moving the “small kids’ rides” does two things: “It probably makes it more attractive to families; the little kids are segregated from teenagers and people who ride the big kid rides; and it makes it not as packed,”
Tom Poe, manager of Lenders Title Co., said in an earlier article that business has to be conducted during the festival, but his customers and employees have to park several blocks away. He also said noisy carnival rides are “literally six feet” from the business’s front door. Trash is left in the parking lot, too, he said.
Crafton said she supports moving the rides.
“Moving them out from in front of businesses to a big open lot would help everybody,” Crafton said. “At least there is some talking going on, and hopefully, they’ll come up with a solution.”
• Lacy said chamber staff members will be on hand during the festival in case problems crop up.
“One thing we are committed to do is have a number of people, probably two or three — not volunteers, paid chamber staff — to respond to property owners during the festival when things happen,” he said.
Those staff members will give their cellphone numbers to business owners, he said, and will probably will spend some time in the chamber building to better hear their phones when they ring.
“When someone’s private parking lot gets blocked, we unblock it,” he said.
“We can do a better job of responding to things in real time. We don’t hear about it until the next day, or when the festival is over. We need them to understand we’re here to respond,” Lacy said.
• Delay the closure of city streets until late evening hours the day before the festival.
Lacy said the streets are blocked about 5 p.m.
“What we’re going to do is push it back to 7. That’s just going to give people time to get out of the area. Merchants who are closing at 6 can get out of there. People who have come to eat dinner will have a chance, even ones parked on Front Street,” he said.
Moving the festival to another weekend — a suggestion from Mike’s Restaurant owner Mike Coats — also didn’t pass muster with the committee
“The committee, the board, I think everybody … agrees you keep it downtown and try to make it work for everybody, or you don’t do it,” Lacy said.
“The problem with changing the weekend is: Many of your vendors are on a circuit, and they have been committed to you for years, and the next weekend, or two weekends, they may already have commitments. I think most people know it’s the first weekend of May,” he said.
Lacy said he and the board hope the changes will make Toad Suck Daze more compatible for downtown merchants.
“There are 150,000 people who are coming. They have disposable income, and those merchants should get part of that,” he said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith may be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.