From The Editors
As Roar on the Shore rolls out of town, what can we learn about small businesses affected by the festival?
If you work, live, or play in downtown Erie, you noticed a change the morning of Monday, July 21. An overwhelming wave of quiet enveloped the streets, signaling that the Roar had been hushed to a whisper, as the throngs of motorcyclists departed the Gem City after the now-five-day festival.
While that festival was peaking over the weekend, a conversation was gaining momentum online at ErieReader.com — one started by Reader contributor Jim Wertz with a story titled "Tickle's Pickle."
You know the place, the modest, no-frills squat deli, known for the "Big Freddy," situated on Fourth Street between Peach and State streets, the place that often has a line spilling out its door during lunchtime on any given day of the week.
But as Jim wrote, not Tuesday, July 15 — the day before the Roar on the Shore officially began and the day the City blocked off Fourth Street between Peach and French streets, posting 'Road Closed Ahead' signs, as the mammoth mainstage was erected therewithin and orange plastic fencing lined the sides of State down to Third Street.
"We're small business. Small businesses can't afford this kind of disruption," Tickle's owner Sue Wyant told Jim. "This used to just happen during Celebrate Erie because they put the stage down here. Now it's Roar on the Shore and Celebrate Erie, so we lose twice during the year."
"I work downtown," someone wrote in the comment section shortly after the article posted, "I can tell you for sure that Roar on the Shore has deterred my regular clientele from my place of business, and I do not benefit from this event as everyone seems to think."
Another person followed up just a little over an hour later explaining that she had closed her business downtown. "Ghost town for sure!" she wrote. "We learned our lesson last year."
But Roar on the Shore is anything but a ghost town. Several folks from the Reader crew strolled down State Street Friday to take in the event, observe the happenings, and gauge the festivities the day after the parade wound its way through the region.
To call it bustling and booming would be an understatement. While the final numbers have yet to be reported as of the time we sent our pages off to the printer (we'll be posting updates online, as Jim continues his coverage), one couldn't help but notice the droves of bikers, bike enthusiasts, non-bikers, and non-bike enthusiasts all pushing up and down the sidewalks, crowding in to see stunt bikers, inching closer to admire the two-wheeled machinery, and jostling about to get a jumbo turkey leg or fried mozzarella, fried zucchini, or fried pickles — and that was just Friday afternoon.
But therein lies the real pickle — at least from a small-business's perspective. If you're a first-timer to a city, why venture into somewhere foreign, strange, and alien — somewhere where you know not what awaits you — when you can settle for something that universally tastes the same?
Fried mozzarella — or pickles — will always taste like fried mozzarella, or fried pickles.
That is, you know what you're getting before your order is handed to you. To someone not in the know, a "Big Freddy" or even a "Two Much Freddy" can be daunting, frightening even. And that's only if you were bold enough to stray slightly from the congestion and open the door to a local deli, walk in and snag a menu, and place your order, which doesn't have to be something as distinctive — as "Erie" — and could just be a damn good turkey and cheese sandwich.
But what's more — and if those quotes above tell us anything — is that local businesses seem to have seen a drop off in their regular clientele during the event, forcing them to shutter their doors and await a return to normalcy. A return of their faithful customers once the action's died down.
Like it or not, there's no denying that Roar on the Shore stimulates Erie's economy — people visit our city, stay here, buy here, and enjoy the entertainment here — and that's a good thing. But perhaps most importantly with events like these — if we're truly looking to use them as fundraising efforts for the Erie region — we want those visitors to depart as ambassadors of the city, of the region, to tell others that something special is happening here, something worth returning to.
So why not highlight our small businesses — the restaurants and the shops, the people and places that make us what we are: Erie. That is, why marginalize what makes us distinct when we can capitalize on it?
As we watch Roar on the Shore conclude its ninth year, we can safely assume that the planning for a tenth year is already underway. In that planning, a better dialogue between those running the event and the small businesses in our area needs to be had so that we're not having the same conversations come July 2015, because if the past is any indication, people will return to the Gem City for this event.
"Man, I love this place," one out-of-town biker, who was back for his third time, told someone in the Reader crew that Friday. "You guys have cool restaurants and shops — really."
It'd be hard to believe he's simply talking about the jumbo turkey legs and fried pickles.