By Melanie Williamson
After months of complaints to both city council and the parks and recreation board by merchants regarding public land usage, Ward 1 councilman John Gabriel organized a town hall style meeting inviting both merchants and representatives from Main Street to attend, share their positions, and hopefully come to a resolution.
Six business owners attended the meeting along with four members of Main Street Vermilion. Char Gabel owner of The Encore Shoppe and Friends of Harbour Town 1837 Executive Director started off the discussion by stating that the merchants do not like the street being closed for events. She stated that it is not a safety issue and they just need to keep chairs out of the street. The issue of Main Street being closed was brought up by other merchants as well who felt it was hurting their business. Third Thursday was specifically referred to in reference to the street being closed. Brian Crandall of The Silly Goose stated that the street was closed because chairs were being set up in the street in front of Brummers to hear a particularly popular musician. Crandall stated that if a musician is able to pull that big of a crowd, he should be set up in one of the parks where there is plenty of room.
Beth Eberhard was at the meeting representing Main Street Vermilion and started by speaking specifically about the Chalk it Up event, which involves closing Main Street between the rail road tracks and Liberty Avenue. She shared that the event was started to replace a former annual fundraiser that was no longer working for the organization. She had seen a similar event while in Florida and felt it would be ideal for Vermilion. She stressed that they want the merchants to be happy and successful, but they also need to maintain fundraising events to remain solvent.
Eberhard went on to say that when they learned the merchants were unhappy with the event, they started talking about possibly changing the location to south of the train tracks on Main Street or possibly to North Main Street near the beach. Crandall suggested they move the event to the library parking lot, which would encourage people to walk that end of Liberty and incorporate the library into the event. Eberhard responded that it was a good idea and reiterated that no final decisions had been made, but they were discussing alternative locations for the Chalk It Up event.
Eberhard also referred to complaints that were made regarding garbage being left behind after the Chalk It Up event. She stated that when they arrived the morning of the event, the city garbage cans were already full, and she personally emptied the trash and she took six trash bags to her house. At the end of the event, they made sure all the trash was either in the city trash bins or stacked against the bins knowing it would be picked up Monday morning.
The discussion then progressed to the Main Street Vermilion Farmers Market which is held every Saturday throughout the summer in Victory Park. Judy Klukas of Main Street Vermilion was there to speak specifically about the Farmers Market being one of the organizers for that event. She stated that they first became aware that the downtown merchants were unhappy with the variety of products being sold at the farmers market two or three years ago. She went on to say that at that time, they started looking at the vendors that were attending the market and this past season they eliminated 12 vendors to reduce the non-edible items being sold. She stated they are also discussing changing the hours of the market to 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
There was some confusion in the conversation regarding the farmers market as the complaints about the market ranged from the items being sold to the lack of parking to the use of the park every weekend. Shawn Jeffrey owner of The Ancient Celtic Shop made several suggestions on how she felt Main Street could do more at the farm market to promote local businesses, as well as suggesting they move it to either a weekend evening or Sunday to attract people to the downtown area at times when they may benefit the downtown businesses. Gabel asserted that Main Street Vermilion, The Chamber of Commerce, and The Friends of Harbour Town 1837 should sit down together to plan out events that won’t compete with each other.
Crandall repeatedly went back to the fact that they were allowing venders in the farm market that sold products that directly competed with downtown businesses including t-shirts, wine glasses, jewelry, and soaps. He stated, “It’s not fair to sell things that are also sold in the local stores.” Klukas responded that she would look more into what the venders were selling this year. He also asserted that when looking at the Main Street Vermilion Facebook page, they consistently promoted the farmers market but rarely ever promoted downtown businesses. Crandall stated that he wanted to see the day change and for the farmers market to be a “true farmers market” selling produce.
Jeffrey stated that there are many new businesses with new clientele bases in Vermilion, and she felt the current events should be reviewed, some scaled back, and some new events introduced. She also reiterated her belief that the farmers market should be moved to an off day that would be more helpful in bringing people downtown. Eberhard responded that they have talked to their current venders about moving the day of the market, and they did not like that idea. Crandall asked what the problem was with limiting the farmers market to just produce. Eberhard responded that the problem was finding vendors. Eberhard stated that they understood the complaints being made by the vendors and they would take them into consideration when looking at how to improve the event.
Jeffrey also suggested that the Main Street Vermilion Board should include a retail business owner and a service industry business owner asserting that those perspective should be taken into consideration when making decisions. Eberhard responded that they are open to new people, but that most of the board members are retired because they have the time to commit to the organization. The merchants and those from Main Street Vermilion all agreed that the Ice Affair was a great event that positively impacted the downtown businesses. There was discussion about the annual Corvette show that takes place downtown, but that is not a Main Street Vermilion event, so there was no real opportunity to brainstorm a solution to the problems caused by that event for the merchants.