Saturday, August 14, 1999

Ujima festival was bust for businesses, survey says

Outlets tell DCI street closings hurt

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Many downtown businesses that stayed open during last month's Ujima Cinci-Bration Festival lost money, according to an informal survey by Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI).

        The merchants attributed the bad business to the large crowds and downtown street closures, the survey indicated. The closures are much more extensive for the Ujima festival because of the cruising it attracts.

        The merchants also want to be able to close their businesses — as many do during big events like Riverfest — without their motives being questioned.

        “It may be an economic decision (to close), but they're treated like it's a racial decision,” said Anastasia Mileham, vice president for communications for DCI, the downtown marketing group.

        But organizers of the 2-year-old celebration of African-American culture say the criticism is unfair.

        “Other festivals go on and businesses don't complain about losing money or being closed,” said James Clingman, president of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce, which runs Ujima.

        “To put it mildly it's misconception,” he said. “To put it bluntly, it's grounded in fear and prejudice.”

        Because of the cruising that's become a tradition during the concert weekend, police reserve the right to close streets from Central Parkway to Third Street and from Central Avenue to Broadway.

        Vice Mayor Minette Cooper said the city must find a better solution than closing streets.

        “This is a big city, and this is big financial boon for our city,” she said. “We need to make it as successful socially as it is financially.”

        The three-day downtown event in late July drew 150,000 visitors, organizers estimated, and pumped up to $40 million into the city's economy.

        DCI undertook the survey after hearing complaints from downtown merchants who lost money during the weekend, Ms. Mileham said. The idea was to get information to figure out how to make the event a success for everyone, she said.

        DCI Marketing Director Nancy Parrott sent out 500 surveys to downtown businesses, and 99 returned them. When asked if the businesses were typically open during weekends, 93 percent said yes.

        Of those, 70 percent were open during Ujima this year, and 30 percent decided to close for the weekend.

        The businesses that chose to close had been opened in the past and said they closed because:

        • Street closings and parking restrictions prevented regular customers from coming downtown, made it difficult for employees to get to work and find parking and sent a message that the festival wasn't safe.

        • Past experience told them they would lose money, efforts to market to festival-goers would be unsuccessful and employees relying on tips and commission didn't make money.

        Of the businesses that stayed open, 4 percent reported increased sales, 90 percent reported a decrease and 6 percent reported no change.

        Those who lost money that weekend listed street closures and parking restrictions as the main reasons — the same reasons cited by those businesses that decided to close for the weekend, noted Ms. Parrott.

        The DCI report notes that while Cincinnati's many public festivals are good for the city's image, they're bad for business for downtown merchants. For that reason, Ms. Parrott said many merchants close for other events, too.

        “But with this one,” she said, “they feel pressure to stay open and lose money.”

        A former general manager of Plaza 600 downtown, Ms. Parrott said she closed her restaurant for jazz festival weekend, Riverfest and July 4th weekend because business was always slow those weekends.

        But jazz festival weekend was the only time people noticed she was closed and questioned why, she said.

        Hunt Club Clothiers President Jeff Besecker said his store downtown had lower than average sales the Saturday of Ujima, which is typical of any big street festival.

        “Usually when those events happen, our business is off,” he said.

        Ms. Mileham said DCI plans to create a task force to study the issue and come up with recommendations. Some ideas include moving the event to Sawyer Point, Bicentennial Commons or Central Parkway where Taste of Cincinnati takes place, or consolidating the festival to fewer blocks.

        Mr. Clingman objected. People at downtown hotels won't walk to Sawyer Point, he said.

        The better idea is improved marketing, said Lajuana Miller, who coordinated the event. She suggested an exhibit or activity inside Tower Place mall to draw the jazz festival crowd.

        City Councilman Paul Booth has called for a meeting of downtown hotel owners, in particular, because he has heard complaints from festival patrons about two-night minimum stays, requiring a credit card to check in and higher-than-normal rates.

        “There has been a feeling for some time that there could be better treatment, that the city could be more welcoming,” Mr. Booth said.

        Ms. Miller said the hotels' policies are usual, in her experience. And Mr. Clingman said he would extend such a meeting beyond the question of hotels to tourism as it applied to multicultural markets generally.


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