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‘Big loss of income’

Downtown merchants discuss Toad Suck Daze concerns with chamber

By Tammy Keith

This article was published June 8, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

toad-master-brian-ratliff-stands-on-parkway-street-in-downtown-conway-during-the-toad-races-at-a-previous-toad-suck-daze-festival-several-downtown-conway-businesses-signed-a-petition-asking-to-meet-with-the-conway-area-chamber-of-commerce-to-discuss-moving-the-festival-to-the-conway-expo-center-and-fairgrounds-or-to-find-another-solution-to-problems-they-said-are-caused-by-the-event-many-business-people-have-reiterated-that-their-intent-is-not-to-end-toad-suck-daze

Toad Master Brian Ratliff stands on Parkway Street in downtown Conway during the toad races at a previous Toad Suck Daze festival. Several downtown Conway businesses signed a petition asking to meet with the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce to discuss moving the festival to the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds, or to find another solution to problems they said are caused by the event. Many business people have reiterated that their intent is not to end Toad Suck Daze.

Some downtown Conway business owners, after years of making private comments, have been talking publicly about problems they have said Toad Suck Daze causes for them.

Most added that they don’t want to do away with the festival; they just want it to move.

Several store owners said they are forced to close when an estimated 100,000-plus people crowd into downtown. They cite a lack of parking for their customers, potential for shoplifting, and festivalgoers who are more interested in using a business’s bathrooms than buying anything.

Suggestions range from the most commonly mentioned — moving the festival to the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds — to bringing the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in one night to attract a different crowd.

A handful of business owners met May 29 with Conway Area Chamber of Commerce employees.

Sena Crafton, who owns the Grand On Oak boutique at 1101 Oak St., and others downtown gathered signatures to get the ball rolling.

“Most everybody said it hurts their business a lot. We don’t want to stop Toad Suck — we need to make that clear. There’s not one single merchant who wants to stop Toad Suck Daze,” Crafton said.

As of Wednesday, 44 people had signed the list.

“Petition is such an ugly word,” Crafton said.

Printed at the top of one of the pages is the question: “How do you feel about having the Toad Suck event downtown? Sign if in favor of having the event moved to the Expo Center and F.C. Fairgrounds.”

Not everyone who signed the list said he was in favor of moving the festival, but several people agreed that the list has started a much-needed conversation.

“This is the first time since I’ve been in downtown that we’ve ever had a dialogue,” said Mike Coats, owner of Mike’s Place Restaurant on Front Street, where he’s been for nine years.

“There are those who want [Toad Suck Daze] moved from downtown. I’m not on that list,” he said.

Coats wants the festival moved to a weekend that doesn’t conflict with the University of Central Arkansas’ graduation.

The award-winning festival is held annually the first weekend in May. This year was the 33rd festival.

The proceeds have provided $1.4 million toward college scholarships, as well as $140,000 for a preschool-education program.

The festival was moved downtown permanently in 1992 from Toad Suck Park on the Arkansas River across the bridge in Perry County. Before that, the event was held downtown in 1990 after the river flooded.

Mayor Tab Townsell said he supports having the festival downtown.

“The [Conway City] Council has a right to say no; we’re not going to do this anymore. They have not taken an initiative to do that. Until then, we will support the Toad Suck Daze in downtown,” Townsell said.

“However, it’s evolving, this resistance to Toad Suck Daze being downtown. The council may yet take it up,” he said.

Andy Hawkins, a 20-year member of the Conway City Council, said he has heard business owners complain about the festival.

“I hate for any business to be put out and put back because of things that are going on downtown in association with it,” Hawkins said. “As far as banning [the festival from downtown], I don’t know. Nobody’s asked me about it.

“I have talked to several business owners, and they have said it hurts their business, and more than one has indicated that they’d like to see it moved somewhere.

“This is not the first time I’ve heard of it; this is the first time I’ve heard about an ongoing effort to get it moved.”

Several business owners said they close Friday and Saturday during Toad Suck Daze. Others said they stay open and suffer financially.

At least two business owners contacted said they reap the benefits of having thousands of people walk by their businesses.

Crafton, however, said Toad Suck Daze has outgrown downtown.

“It’s gotten too big for such a small area,” Crafton said. “Parking is an issue; safety is an issue. There are so many reasons not to have it downtown.”

Business concerns

“It’s just that I have to shut down for several days because of Toad Suck, and really, the whole week of Toad Suck Daze is just a dead, dead week,” Crafton said.

“This time of year, our slowest months are April and May. We lived for those weekends because that’s when we make it up,” she said.

Crafton said her store is too small for large crowds, and she doesn’t have the staff to monitor them.

Sherry Smith, co-owner of Fletcher Smith’s Jewelers, which had been in downtown Conway for 95 years, said she and her husband close on Friday and Saturday each year of the festival.

“It’s a forced shutdown for us,” Smith said. “If we stay open, just because of the sheer number of people, our insurance company requires additional coverage,” which costs more, she said. “They have even suggested we hire an armed guard. For us, it just becomes very difficult to stay open.”

She said sales are affected on more than just the Friday and Saturday of the festival.

“As soon as anyone in the community sees any indication that Toad Suck is coming, they avoid downtown,” Smith said.

The streets downtown aren’t blocked until Thursday afternoon, according to a chamber official, but preparations for the event start earlier.

Smith said she understands that the Toad Suck Daze Committee needs to start getting ready as soon as possible, but it makes an impact on businesses.

“As soon as they bring in those fences to block off the railroad tracks, it’s just over for us,” Smith said.

“We, in effect, lose or have an entire week curtailed. None of us are opposed to Toad Suck Daze. We all think it’s a great thing, but it’s beginning to severely hurt the downtown businesses,” she said. “The last thing we want is for the community to feel like we don’t want to have it, or that we’re opposed to Toad Suck Daze.

“We’re small businesses. We don’t have another location to generate a cash flow. What most people don’t realize, we’re just paying our bills; we’re not getting rich. If we lose a week, it takes us months to recover from that because then we’re behind.”

She said the issue can become, “Who do I pay this month, and who do I not pay? There were many years when Fletch and I didn’t get a paycheck that week,” Smith said.

“I realize, looking at if from the outside, people say, ‘It’s just a couple of days. How much can that be?’ But it can be very significant. It’s not like it’s slow for a week, and then we have a big bump. Those are sales you can’t get back,” she said.

Townsell said he has heard the concerns.

“Do I sympathize with business owners? Yes, to a degree,” he said. “I will point out that the vast majority of them have opened their business or made location decisions to put their business in or dangerously near the footprint of Toad Suck Daze since Toad Suck Daze came downtown. They knew what they were getting.”

Crafton, who opened her business in 2012, said, “I really had no idea it would be anything like it was — it’s just so massive,” she said.

Fletcher Smith’s Jewelers at one point moved from Front Street around the corner to Oak Street in downtown.

“It relocated — they could have relocated out; they chose to relocate in,” Townsell said.

Carmen Thompson, owner of Carmen’s Antiques on Oak Street, was one of those who attended the May 29 meeting.

“Though it brings 100,000 people, let’s say, to Conway, it cripples the retail merchants downtown because lately they’re not just having it Friday and Saturday. Now they start blocking on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — they’re limiting access to downtown earlier than it was,” Thompson said.

“The space is not viable. I can’t see it being a benefit when you can’t even move around downtown,” she said.

“Sometimes I open just to test,” Thompson said. “What [chamber officials are] saying is it’s an opportunity to sell. Well, not necessarily. The people who come to Toad Suck — they come to have fun. Yes, maybe they see my store and think about coming back. Other merchants say people say, ‘Whoa, I don’t want to come [downtown] on Toad Suck because I won’t be able to park.’ They’re losing their customer base, their regular ones.”

Husband-and-wife duo Larry Rogers and Liz Snipan built on Oak Street downtown in 2007 to expand their business, EM Jeans, which had been in a shopping center. The two-story building has been hailed by city officials for its presence and architecture in downtown Conway, and it was constructed on a vacant lot where other businesses had burned. EM Jeans is open seven days a week.

Rogers and Snipan both said that when they expressed concerns about locating downtown because of Toad Suck Daze, chamber officials indicated that Toad Suck Daze would be moved, or better managed.

“We were under the impression that they thought it was as intrusive as we did, and not a positive,” Snipan said.

EM stays open during Toad Suck Daze, the owners said.

“We have hired security guards in the past, just because of the clientele it seems to bring in,” Rogers said. “We have closed early because of the clientele it seems to bring in. It’s definitely a different clientele than what Toad Suck used to be.

“It cuts business in half. That’s only if we’re lucky.”

The couple said Toad Suck Daze vendors sell hats, clothing, sunglasses — many of the same type of items they and other downtown stores offer.

Rogers said the festival used to have more arts and crafts, which was not as much in direct competition with their business.

Tyra Hahn said Ye Olde Daisy Shoppe has been on Oak Street since 1968. During Toad Suck Daze, “we close,” she said.

“Most people don’t like to go without money,” Hahn said, adding that she didn’t want to elaborate.

Jenifer Hendrix, who owns Jenifer’s Antiques on Oak Street, said her business is negatively affected by the festival.

“My vendors pay me rent to be open; I can’t close,” she said. Hendrix said she hires more staff to watch for shoplifting.

“It’s a ridiculously big loss of income for several days,” Hendrix said. She said the crowds attending Saturday night’s concert are usually not looking for antiques.

Rapper M.C. Hammer was the main entertainment the Saturday night of Toad Suck Daze this year.

That caused a problem for Coats and his restaurant on Front Street, he said. Concertgoers were so packed against his doors that they were blocked.

“My customers couldn’t get out. I called 911, and nobody came,” Coats said.

Conway Police Chief A.J. Gary said Coats called to ask that police prevent people from loitering in front of his restaurant, “that his customers were having trouble getting in and out.”

“I’m sure people were loitering,” Gary said. “There was really nothing the officers could do. There are a bunch of people downtown; they pack into that little area, and they’re going to be standing wherever they can to watch the concert.

“It was not a life-or-death situation where people were trapped inside.”

Jimbo Hendrickson, owner of Baker Drug Store, said it is essential that his pharmacy be open during the festival. The business has been downtown since 1978.

“We’re kind of unique. We sell medicine, and we have to get the medicine to our customers,” he said.

Hendrickson said he loses one-third of his usual revenue during Toad Suck Daze.

He said that for years he allowed his parking lot to be used for free by festivalgoers, but his customers couldn’t get in. Now, he allows Young Life to use the lot and charge for parking as a fundraiser, but his customers can park for free.

“People, they don’t come. But the ones that do, they want to get here, and it’s a real hassle,” he said.

Hendrickson said the drug store offers delivery for its customers, but during Toad Suck Daze, “that takes twice as long.”

Tom Poe, manager of Lenders Title on Main Street, said he had to leave the May 29 meeting early because of a closing.

“They were very gracious,” he said of the chamber.

However, he is frustrated by problems associated with Toad Suck Daze. The title business has to carry on, he said, despite the fact that it’s on Main Street in the thick of the festival.

“The rides are literally 6 feet from my front door,” Poe said, “which makes it very difficult to conduct business, not only because of the activity, but for my customers who have to park six, eight blocks away to get in here and conduct business — and my employees.”

Poe said the rides are noisy, and festivalgoers come in wanting to use the business’s bathroom. Plus, trash on the lot is a problem, he said.

“I’m not against Toad Suck,” Poe said.

Not all downtown businesses see Toad Suck Daze as a deterrent to them.

Ray Kordsmeier, owner of Kordsmeier Furniture Co., said he likes having the festival downtown.

“I’m just fine with it,” he said.

He sees it as great advertising for his business.

“What I recall of Toad Suck when it was on the river is that there wasn’t anybody downtown. I don’t feel like I’m passing up a lot of foot traffic; now I’ve got 100,000 people passing by my windows,” he said.

“We had a couple who came in here, and they live in Dallas, and they’re going to relocate here from Dallas,” Kordsmeier said.

“They came during Toad Suck. They didn’t know what was going on, and they were bragging on how neat that was and how great it was to have it downtown,” Kordsmeier said. He said the couple “couldn’t get around, but they came back to scout around” and came into his store.

“I think Toad Suck is incredible for the community overall. If it’s a little bit of a sacrifice, make a little bit of sacrifice,” Kordsmeier said.

Max Henry, who has operated the Country Gentleman barbershop for almost 50 years — 39 of them in the same location on Front Street — said he is open during Toad Suck Daze and gets business.

He is on a part of Front Street that doesn’t have Toad Suck Daze vendors lining it.

“Where else are you going to get 150,000 people to walk by your business and say, ‘Huh, there’s a barbershop.’ You might not get 1 percent, but you might get 1 percent, which wouldn’t be bad,” he said.

Possible solutions

Crafton, as well as several people who signed the petition, suggested the Conway Expo and Fairgrounds, 2505 E. Oak St., as an option for Toad Suck Daze. The facility opened in 2010.

Crafton said the move can’t be done immediately, because there is only one entrance and exit at that location, but it could be improved.

Her husband, Hal Crafton, is a longtime Conway developer.

“The road, that’s the big thing,” he said, “but that’s something that could be fixed, too. That’s something that wasn’t planned very well.”

Hal Crafton said an additional entrance needs to be created on the fairgrounds property, regardless of whether Toad Suck Daze moves there.

“We need to address that and make it a better situation for everybody, whether it’s Dazzle Daze or the fair. We’ve invested millions in (the expo center); so don’t give up on it.” He said a road could be built “for pennies on the dollar.”

“What they don’t have, they can get, and it might take two years to do it. That’s what we’ve got the A&P money for,” he said, referring to Advertising and Promotion funds.

Carmen Thompson also thinks the fairgrounds is a logical option for the festival.

“My suggestion was to move it to the fairgrounds, which is a wonderful venue, I think,” Thompson said, adding that she and others suggested it at the May 29 meeting. “They said infrastructure is not there. Well, then, look at the infrastructure. Build it up. You want to look at the future.”

Brad Lacy, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corp., said, “it’s not that easy — it’s just not that easy. You have several issues that you would have to deal with — you have one entrance and exit point into that area.”

He said Conway Corp. officials mentioned at the meeting that “the electricity is not there in the way it needs to be to have a festival.”

The electrical infrastructure downtown, however, has been improved to handle Toad Suck Daze, Lacy said.

Hal Crafton said that is an easy solution.

“Overhead power out there would be no problem; then you could make it permanent,” he said.

Conway Parks and Recreation Director Steve Ibbotson agreed that the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds can’t handle the electrical needs of Toad Suck Daze.

“It was built for an expo center and to accommodate the fair, and we do have the electricity inside to handle those vendors for the shows that we do. It wasn’t built for a festival,” Ibbotson said. “There’s not enough electricity for [Toad Suck Daze] vendors.

“The rides and stuff, we might be able to handle, but food vendors and other vendors that sell their wares, whether it be engraving or whatever,” couldn’t be accommodated at this point.

“I don’t know if we could handle all their vendors inside to begin with. The food wouldn’t be inside, I can tell you,” he said.

That isn’t the main drawback of holding Toad Suck Daze there, Ibbotson said.

“From my perspective of it, the issue comes that there is no parking. When you put that many people at the festival, we don’t have parking to cover that. When it’s downtown, there are so many different parking options for them and for people to park and to walk in,” he said.

“That includes us allowing them to park in the grass; beyond that, you’re out on the highway,” he said.

One access is a problem, too, he said.

“Obviously, the fair, it becomes an issue when they have the outdoor show and they bring in Si [Robertson of the reality television show Duck Dynasty]. There are times it becomes an issue,” he said.

There is another entrance, Hart Lane, on the east side of the property, he said, which also exits onto Oak Street.

Townsell said “it’s more like a driveway” and wasn’t meant for mass exit and entrance.

“No, I don’t think it’s a good option. and at this point, with one way in and out, it’s no option,” he said.

Ibbotson said he would like to see another entrance to the south, toward Middle Road.

Ibbotson said if the festival were moved to the fairgrounds, “they’d have to scale it down. How do you pick and choose? How do you scale down? Once you scale down, is it really worth having?”

Plus, Townsell said, downtown Conway has more character.

“There’s nothing that says Conway, Arkansas, necessarily, about the Conway Expo Center. It’s not like downtown, which speaks specifically of Conway, Arkansas,” he said.

“I do understand the concerns that they have, and I think we should do everything we can, if we’re going to keep the festival downtown, to evolve its footprint in a less problematic way, although you move a problem from one area to another,” Townsell said.

“As of right now, from an access standpoint, you have access downtown from a multitude of directions — not one, not two, but a multitude of directions,” he said, “and parking in a wider area than we could ever have at the fairgrounds.”

Hendrix said she doesn’t think the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds is a good option, either, because one access is “too limiting.”

She said her suggestion at the meeting with the chamber was to invite the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra to perform Friday night at the festival. Then she would stay open till 10 p.m., she said, and possibly close early Saturday.

The Conway Symphony Orchestra is “phenomenal, but they’re available to us all the time,” she said.

Also, her suggestion was to move Toad Suck Daze to June and have it in Laurel Park, the Conway High School parking lot and track, “all over there.”

Rogers said maybe Toad Suck Daze could be spread throughout the city, not just concentrated in downtown Conway.

“Why don’t we use the fairgrounds for rides and vendors, use downtown for bands and an artwalk, and share Toad Suck Daze with the whole town?” Rogers asked.

Kordsmeier said he understands that for some stores, “it makes sense not to open, like a jewelry store.”

“I think a lot of the retailers don’t take advantage of the foot traffic that’s out there and just try anything,” Kordsmeier said. He suggested bringing in special merchandise to sell during the festival to “do a close-out.”

A clothing store could have someone at the front door to greet people, he said.

Kordsmeier said his granddaughter made cookies and sold them in front of his store and gave the money to the American Red Cross.

“I get frustrated that a lot of stores don’t even try to get people in,” Kordsmeier said.

Hendrickson said he’s made a valiant effort at Baker Drug Store.

“I try to be a good soldier for Conway,” he said.

“I’ve tried every way known to man just to pay for our day, and it’s not possible, in my situation. I’ve done candy; I’ve had a tent sale out there; we used to do strawberries,” Hendrickson said.

“I’d love for it to be moved. I don’t know where would be a good location,” he said. “I would love for them to move it out to the new place,” he said, referring to the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds.

Max Henry has an idea:”I think that we should put it from the [St. Joseph] Catholic Church to Hendrix College, right down [Front Street]. Get it off the railroad tracks,” he said. “I’m afraid for children, even though you have people who watch. If you lost one child to the train, it would be terrible.”

He suggested that store owners give out “business cards and candy to the kids, whatever, to advertise their business.”

The carnival rides could be moved to nearby Markham Street, he said, once a planned redevelopment of the street happens.

Sena Crafton said business owners she’s talked with are willing to have Toad Suck Daze sales and promotions if the festival is moved, or help in any way they can.

“Downtown is so willing to compromise,” she said. “We just need something to compromise on. We don’t want scholarships to stop; we’ll make them bigger and better.”

Crafton said downtown businesses have a lot of obstacles — if it rains, business suffers; if it’s hot, business suffers.

“But of the obstacles, Toad Suck can be changed. This is one less week that we could take out of the equation that this is going to be a slow week; this is going to be a bad week.

“Downtown is awesome; there are so many great people, so many great businesses. We want to keep it that way.”

Chamber’s response

Lacy said he understands the business owners’ concerns.

“There are concerns that we know have been there for a long time. Even before I came on board at the chamber, there’s always been some difficulties, I think, with having the festival in the downtown area,” Lacy said.

“I see them as definite concerns and problems. If I was a small-business owner and felt like I was losing money and couldn’t make money during the festival, then that’s a legitimate concern,” he said.

“What I want to see is a solution. There are some businesses down there that I think have looked for a solution, and I think it’s positive,” Lacy said.

He said the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors will discuss the issue at its June 19 meeting.

Lacy said he will present options, including moving the festival to the fairgrounds — and not having it at all.

“The discussion for our board — there are going to be a lot of things to talk about. One is going to be, if we keep it downtown, what can we do to make it better where everyone wins?

“I think some of it is an easy fix — like blocking people’s access to private parking lots. There are definitely things we can do better, but picking something up that’s that big and moving it somewhere — you don’t just do that easily.”

However, he said the chamber board “will talk about this idea to move it to the expo center.

“I’m going to propose this idea of whether we want to have it. We have to ask ourselves, is there something better we can do with our time to meet the needs of our members? At the end of the day, we are a membership organization. Some of our members are some of the people who are really upset. It puts us in a bad position. This discussion isn’t going to get easier as downtown continues to grow.

“I do feel, and I think our whole team would say this, we feel sort of a civic obligation to do it because we think the bigger community enjoys it. I see a bunch of people I go to church with; I see a bunch of young families with kids.”

Lacy said maybe it’s time to change from providing the money for education to investing it in downtown.

An email was sent by Lyndsay Wygal Henderson, senior vice president of chamber operations, summing up comments made at the May 29 meeting and asking those who attended to send any additions by Thursday.

Lacy said only the original 19 or 20 on the petition were invited May 29, but he said it was not an attempt to control the size of the meeting.

Sena Crafton said she didn’t know that only those business owners would be invited. More names were added to the original list and continue to be, she said.

Where to go from here

Townsell said he has “visited with representatives of the chamber specifically on this issue and, just in general, with the broader chamber leadership.

“Basically, the chamber has a right to move it on its own volition, and the city has a right to prohibit it. The city will be welcoming and supportive of it till things change. I have no idea if they’re going to.

“I have to point out this special relationship with the city and downtown. We put in thousands, approaching millions of dollars, actually more than millions of dollars with improvements to parks [and other facets of downtown].

“We invest a lot of the community’s assets in downtown so it can be part of the pride of community. As a trade-off, a lot of these downtown businesses don’t have to supply their own parking, have no exterior landscape to maintain, and they get all the benefit of this beauty and enhancements and don’t have to pay for it.”

Businesses elsewhere don’t get those enhancements, Townsell said Rogers pointed out that downtown property owners pay an additional tax.

Lacy said that was approved by a majority of property owners themselves in November 2013.

“That tax wasn’t imposed by city government,” he said.

“I’m a downtown property owner, too, and this is the first year I’m paying it,” he said.

Townsell said the question goes beyond just whether to move Toad Suck Daze.

“We built our downtown and enhance it as a community gathering place,” Townsell said. “If we don’t maintain and use it as a community gathering place for parades, for concerts, for festivals, then we must question our investment in these enhancements as a community. It’s sort of a broad question and a philosophical question — are they benefiting from our investment in the community but not wanting to give back in terms of the allowance of community activities and functions in downtown?”

Smith said downtown businesses donate to charities and are good community partners.

It’s a difficult issue, she said.

The discussion with the chamber was a “positive step,” Smith said. “I don’t think it was like they had to listen to us; I think they wanted to listen to us.”

Lacy said he sent an email to 60 members of the Toad Suck Daze Committee informing them that an article was going to be published in the River Valley & Ozark Edition.

“The last thing I said was, ‘Let’s make sure this discussion is civil because there are good people on all sides of this issue.’ I really believe that,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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