Madison Street area merchants and business owners reacted in different ways to the first, possibly annual, MusicFest event on the weekend of July 17-19.
All gave a thumbs up regarding how the Forest Park police and Star Events handled security, the issue that caused Summerfest to be discontinued.
“The police patrols and Star Production staff casually covering the roadway kept the atmosphere relaxed and safe,” said Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore.
“There was no evidence of the mob problems from previous fests,” added Heidi Vance, co-owner of Team Blonde.
Some business owners profited financially — in the short term — from the event.
Because of the hot, humid weather, the biggest winner was the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor. When asked last Friday if business was better or worse than usual during the event, the young man behind the counter smiled and replied, “A lot better,” emphasis on “a lot.” A manager at Jimmy’s said she observed people coming into their restaurant for the air conditioning as well as the food.
The other two categories of winners, in one way or another, were the restaurants and women’s apparel shops. Mary, who works at deedee and eedee, said, “I thought the event was really good. I think the sales were quite good, and there were a few new people. To me this is a win/win because of that reason. Sometimes potential customers were with their husbands or boyfriends who didn’t want to wait while they looked through our selection of clothes, but they saw that we are here and may come back at a later date.”
An employee from Madison Street Shoes, however, noted, “Business wasn’t the best, maybe because the street was closed off.”
A woman who works at Jayne explained the less-than-anticipated sales by saying, “It was an OK weekend for sales, but not what we had hoped for. Some new people did discover our store. A lot of people were looking but not buying. Women who stay for the music don’t want to be holding a shopping bag for two hours.”
Scratch Kitchen said the event was “good for business.” Louie from Louie’s Grill said business was down a bit but it was “a nice event.” One of the managers at Jimmy’s said the staff from Star Events, the company that put on MusicFest, came in to eat more than once. “Business was OK,” she said, “but it was the first year. Hopefully next year we’ll be busier.”
Joe, a manager at Francesca’s, said, “It was a little slower than I had anticipated, but we did have a couple people come in who weren’t aware of where we were located. It did bring in some new business, which was the goal of the Chamber.”
A man working at Casa de Puros, a high-end cigar shop and lounge, said business was OK but some people who had never been there before did drop in. The biggest downside, he said, was that regulars had trouble getting to their favorite hangout because of the difficulty finding parking and the limited access to the street.
Team Blonde was one of the women’s apparel shops that had a relatively bad experience at MusicFest.
“We had only a few people come into our store,” said Vance. We heard that generally the gate workers let shoppers in without paying if they told the security person they were just on their way to Team Blonde. However, two people who came to Forest Park from Omaha, Nebraska specifically to shop at Team Blonde were turned away for not paying the entrance fee. We don’t know if this happened to other shoppers, but, of course, this is terrible.”
Aleksy is on the Chamber of Commerce board and was in on the planning, so he knew that customers could enter the event perimeter without paying the $5 fee. “Sales were neither good nor bad,” he noted, “but a few new people came in and checked the store out. I knew that a $5 fee would be asked for at the gate, so I sent out an email a week ahead of time letting my regular customers know they wouldn’t have to pay if they told the gate workers they were coming to my store to shop.”
Chris Guillen, who owns a photography studio on Madison Street, said he thought Star Events did a good job of marketing the event.
“I saw their advertising all over the city of Chicago and on CTA buses. The people I saw taking part in the event were having a good time and it could be successful in time.” For Guillen the biggest issue with MusicFest was inadequate communication.
“MusicFest actually killed our business that weekend,” said Justin Funk, store manager at Grand Appliance. “We had no traffic because of it. People weren’t paying the $5 fee to come in here and see us, even though there is a parking lot in the back which was outside the perimeter.”
Though negative about this year’s experience, Funk has some ideas for next year. “We’re going to participate more,” he said. “We’re going to set up a tent out on the street to get more exposure. Maybe we’ll have a grill out there or hold a raffle. We hope this year’s event gave us and the street some exposure and that people will return, but in the short term it did not benefit us.”
Peter Gianakopoulos at Old School Records said, “I did more business on the Wednesday before MusicFest and 4-5 times more on the following Sunday than I did during the whole MusicFest weekend. Maybe the hot weather and that we were competing with Pitchfork is partly to blame. In the wine walk, people are forced to come into my store, but during MusicFest they did not.” He suggested that getting a few bigger-name bands might attract larger crowds.
Rich Schauer said, “We lost a third of our business at the hardware store that weekend and 80 percent at the Hallmark store. I would have been better off financially to shut down for those three days. I’m a hardware store. I’m here to help the community. People who came to the event from Chicago and other places aren’t going to come into my store and they’re not going to return when there are a hundred other stores like mine closer by.”
“There has to be a lot more communication,” he continued. “There were no signs anywhere saying that customers didn’t have to pay the $5 fee. I had customers who paid and when they found out, they were not happy.”
He had two suggestions: Move the event to The Grove or to the softball fields at The Park. “Make it a music event and let businesses do their business,” he said. “If businesses want to go over to that venue and put up a tent, they can go ahead and do that.” He wondered how much sales tax the village lost because of reduced drop-in business during the weekend.
He also suggested bringing back Summerfest because it was more Forest Park-friendly. “Summerfest was much better, because it was a community event. There were more people from Forest Park walking around. It wasn’t gated off like a prison.”
Larry Piekarz, executive director of the park district, worried that The Park’s income from the No Gloves Nationals tourney last weekend would suffer because residents would have spent all their fun money the weekend before. On Saturday, however, Piekarz reported, “So far, Thursday and Friday nights were among the best, if not the best, days we’ve ever had.”
Schauer admitted he had no answer to the question of security. “How are you going to keep out the undesirables?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. Star Events did what they were supposed to do.”
Everyone the Review talked to agreed that Star Events did a good job, though almost everyone also had suggestions on how to improve the event if it returns next year. Vance, for example, found it strange that two clothing and jewelry vendors were assigned spaces in front of Team Blonde.
After all the feedback, the question seems to persist: How do you design an event that attracts outsiders to get a taste of Forest Park’s unique business district, make it available to local residents, and avoid the security problems that caused the demise of Summerfest?
According to Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, “The Chamber wanted to bring a festival back to the community, and hiring Star Events who manages events like Retro on Roscoe, Wrigleyville Summerfest, and Midsommarfest in Andersonville was the way to go.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from participants and festival-goers, many visiting Madison Street for the first time which is key. A recap meeting with the village, Star Events and the merchants will help the event to grow to be even more successful in the years to come.”
Tom Holmes is on the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.