Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fest Season Proves Important for Court Street Businesses

Kyle Newport
Eric Sagonowsky

Court Street in the afternoon is nowhere near as busy compared to a fest weekend.
A spring day in Athens, Ohio: the flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and students are breaking out the kegs for the fest season. From High Street to Mill Street, these block parties dominate the Ohio University social scene, to the displeasure of city and university officials. However, these fests also mean booming business for local restaurants and bars along Court Street and uptown.

Brenen’s employee Kayleigh Brickman said fest weekend involve a lot of preparation.

“You start with double veggies and getting everything extra, extra ready,” she said, “and two water coolers.”

The timing when drunken hordes ravenously descend upon Court Street has businesses adjusting their routines. They need to prepare for the extra business and have extra food ready. The fests change when the businesses have their afternoon rush and when they are empty.

"In the noon to one hour, [customers] order excess amounts of food because they are going to be drinking," Brickman added. "We're kind of dead from the three to five hours. But then at like five or six again all the drunk kids start coming back."

Other popular food joints on Court Street, such as Wendy’s, O’Betty’s, and Big Mamma’s have also noted a change in the rhythm of business during fest season. Rushes are both earlier in the day and later in the night when sloshed customers stagger in for the characteristic “drunk food” before stumbling into bed.

“After a fest, once it gets later on, we get the main rush of people before they go out to the bars,” said Mitch LaMay, a manager at Big Mamma’s. “Our late nights are always busy after the bars.”

A fest weekend also means more employees are needed to work the shifts. They also have to work longer shifts. Brickman said that during prime hours, four or five extra employees will be working at Brenen’s. In addition, fest shifts are longer than typical.

“Usually shifts at Brenen’s are two or three hours for normal employees and managers work five-hour shifts,” she said. “But on fest days managers are usually working 9-5 and employees work at least four-hour shifts.

Businesses at OU dread the switch from quarters to semesters. Fest season helps bring in extra money for businesses on Court Street. Some businesses do well throughout the year, while others may rely more on fest season to make money. The semester switch has some worried about being able to stay open.

If the fests are altered at all next year, it will affect the amount of money local businesses rake in, and thus the livelihood of the town. Fests are a big draw not only for OU students, but for people from out of town. Students from other universities make their way down to Athens for the popular fests and stroll through Court Street afterwards. Some restaurants have their usual customers, but others get a much-needed boost when outsiders visit.

“They just bring all their friends and they go walk up and down the street and go to as many bars as you want," said Marcus Johnson, a bartender at Lucky’s Sports Tavern. “With the switch to semesters and the change in fests, we are not going to have the luxury of other schools being able to come down and visit.”

Next year, Ohio University will switch to semesters and classes will end more than a month earlier. Johnson and the owners at Lucky's are anticipating a 30% decrease in overall yearly profit with the switch. Students will not be in Athens after early May, and that means that the biggest-business month of the year will be gone.

Although bars have less to worry about than restaurants, they will still feel the effects of losing some business. The nightly rush during fest season brings in additional money that they don’t see throughout the year. With the combination of fest season and nice weather, bars bring in more money than usual on a late spring weekend.

“Spring quarter, in general, is when you make your money in the bars,” said Johnson. “We had a very decent winter quarter but when it gets cold like that, people tend to stay in and want to save money.”

The 2012 spring fest season saw a variety of weather. High Fest was cold and rainy, Palmer Fest had average weather, and those who went to 9Fest had to deal with scorching hot weather. Weather plays a role in how crazy a fest will get. High Fest had no major problems reported, but Palmer Fest dealt with a house fire. Students are not as willing to go all out when the weather is less than ideal, and some students choose to skip the fests altogether in those scenarios. Despite talks of fests growing rowdier throughout the years, not everyone buys into that debate.

“There are lots of variables here, weather will be a variable,” Mayor Paul Wiehl said. “You have the right to assemble. The question is: are you going to be rowdy with it?”

Students tend to carry over their unruliness throughout the entire day. Restaurants and bars need to keep an eye on their customers to ensure they are not harming anyone or the building.

“Kids usually know how to pull it together long enough to eat a sandwich,” Brickman said. “If anything people are just loud, sometimes people throw chips at each other but that’s not a big deal.”

When customers come in drunk, it means the bar’s employees have to work that much harder. But even with the extra attention the customers demand, fest season is still worth it for businesses.

“Everyone is already wasted and coming into the bars, and you have to keep an eye on them about breaking stuff,” said Johnson. “But they are still continuously pumping money into the bars. So the fests definitely help out the bar scene and other businesses during the springtime.”

Some restaurants rate fest weekends as highly as the OU-sanctioned weekends.

“Honestly though, Brenen’s makes more on Palmer Fest, 9fest – it’s similar to a Mom’s Weekend. It’s a really big business day,” Brickman said.

Fests at OU are well-known for their rowdy atmosphere and for giving the police headaches. With the recent house fire during Palmer Fest, city officials began to reconsider the idea of allowing fests to continue. It appears the city officials will allow fests to be held as usual but with the switch from quarters to semesters next year, it’s unclear what the future holds for fests at OU.

“We’re having discussions with the university, and we are having discussions with ourselves,” Wiehl said. “That’s the point of why we are there; our responsibility is to protect the city. That includes students as well as the regular residents – the whole spectrum.”

Officials will talk about possible alternatives to the current fest season. With the semester change coming next year, they may provide less funding in hopes to decrease the number of fests per year. The number of incidents in recent years may work against the students and limit the city funding for future fests.

The city of Athens spends around $40,000 on safety equipment for fest season and doesn’t receive anything back. Not only does the initial contribution cost the city, they also have to deal with arrests and property damages from fests. The city doesn’t need to pay for the damages directly, but have to pay the police to investigate any problems.

“That means $40,000 doesn’t go to fixing other things and doing other things,” Wiehl said. “We spend all the time. It costs us every time policing a fire and extra police.”

This year's fest season cost the city an additional $30,000 from all of the different issues. It may cost the city more as bills keep coming in. The extra costs have helped support city officials’ stance on fests and may impact their decision on whether or not they will allow fests to continue.

Athens and Ohio University police work together during fest season but acknowledge some changes may be needed. However, Captain Ralph Harvey of the Athens Police Department believes fests are good for the community. They may have problems from time to time but it allows students to keep university traditions alive.

"We have to use more police officers during that time," Harvey said. "But it gives the students a chance to continue a tradition that has been with this university for years."

Though the city government does not see the return on investment for the fests, local businesses do. Over 20 bars and countless local restaurants rely on fest visitors and hosts to patronize their businesses and increase yearly profits. Without the city's spending, those businesses would not make as much money.

The city does not supply funds for every fest, such as 9Fest. The numbered fests use their own funding to support themselves. With these fests taking place off-campus, they need to use their own money to run their fest. The off-campus fests do not bring in as much money as the other fests for local businesses but still provide a nice boost in profits.

The fest season can be looked at through different perspectives. It would make the lives of the mayor and police much easier if it disappeared entirely, but students would have such well-known parties without the annual fests. However, some members of the university community may be happier without the party-school reputation.

Restaurants see it as extra business and a chance to gain exposure with students who come in from other schools who are already on semesters. Visiting students provide businesses with extra money at the end of the school year. The thought of the switch to semesters has some businesses thinking about the negative effects.

“I think it would have a negative impact on the store as a whole,” said LaMay. “We would still have busy weekend nights regardless, but I think those fest nights help boost our profits for the year.”

The lingering question, however, is whether or not local businesses net enough money during the fest season to justify the city's expenditures and headaches. Local businesses could possibly help fund some of the chaos especially if they are reaping most of the benefits.

Brickman expressed an interest in the fests returning to how they used to be many years ago, as related to her by her boss Josh Thomas, a graduate from the late ‘80s. She said the city and the police worked with the school to set a date and advertise it. The university even paid for a band.

“There was heavy police force, but you had wristbands to get in,” she said. “Palmer Street was closed off and you could have open containers in the middle of the street.”

While an official fest season, recognized by both the university and the city, could do wonders for controlling the wildness of the event, the expenses of such an effort could be staggering. It is already costing the city tens of thousands on repair and damage control; officially supporting the fests, like Halloween in the fall, may cost more than it would make.

It would take a monumental effort for both university and city officials to coordinate such an undertaking, but a more controlled atmosphere at the fests could benefit the university in a way that has no definite price tag: a better reputation. If the school cannot ban the fests entirely, it may as well have some measure of control over it, rather than the negative status it currently has.

On the other hand, university and city officials may be hesitant to be responsible for the behavior that goes on at the huge student parties. It will be a developing issue as the 2011-2012 school year winds down and the next year starts. One thing is for sure, OU students will want to party when the weather gets nice, and the local businesses welcome that.

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