A turning point for downtown

October 3, 2009
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While one lucky artist will soon win the $250,000 first-place ArtPrize award, a host of downtown merchants and restaurant owners feel the inaugural competition already has made them winners.

The cash registers reportedly rang and rang and rang some more at many downtown businesses over ArtPrize’s debut weekend Sept. 25-27. Some restaurants sold out of menu items before the weekend was over. Others that aren’t usually open on Sundays decided to open Sept. 27 because of Saturday’s brisk business. Coffeehouses brewed and sold more coffee than ever, and the foot traffic to retail shops was nearly non-stop.

Anne Marie Bessette, a retail specialist with the Downtown Development Authority, said one shop owner did particularly well. Gina VanGessel, owner of Gina’s Boutique at 40 Monroe Center and co-owner of the soon-to-open Lia Rose, reported that her women’s clothing, jewelry and accessories store had strong sales and held a fashion show that helped attract shoppers.

“We had a big, big, big weekend, far beyond what was anticipated. With something like this, being a new event, it’s difficult to really know what to expect as to what kind of traffic would be generated, and I think everybody was surprised,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.

“There were great crowds on Saturday and again on Sunday,” she added.

As for restaurant owners, Bessette said, “A lot of our entrepreneurs ran out of food” due to the high volume of traffic downtown. She learned that businesses such as Schuler Books Downtown’s Chapbook Café, One Trick Pony, Republic and Rockwell’s Kitchen & Tap were out of at least some regular menu items before the sun set on Sunday.

“It’s a rather good problem to have,” she said. “And I think people were extremely surprised that it was such a success. They hadn’t expected that much. They knew there would be more people downtown, but not to that extent.”

Hopcat and the Sundance Grill reportedly also had record sales. Lines were out the door at the Parsley Mediterranean Grill, The Pita House and Local Mocha. West Coast Coffee and MadCap Coffee had their biggest brewing weekend. The BOB had a huge sales weekend, and TGI Fridays stayed open past the normal closing times.

“We’ve heard that restaurants had to bring (extra) staff in,” said Evoy. “I think it was almost like a perfect storm over the weekend, especially on Sunday.”

Paul Collins Fine Art gallery and Commute Bike Shop reported good sales. And Groskopfs said of all the events that have been held downtown over many years, none has drawn more people on a single weekend than ArtPrize.

The first weekend of ArtPrize wasn’t the only busy time. Downtown was pretty packed on the event’s first Thursday too, because of the DDA’s agreement to contribute $15,000 to fund student bus trips to see the competition.

DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said 1,826 students — sixth graders through high school seniors — from 25 public and private schools made the trip that day. “It was great seeing all these kids downtown. It sort of kicked off ArtPrize in a big way, I thought,” he said.

Evoy said the Downtown Alliance saw ArtPrize as having a long-term benefit for the city and its arts community, but also a shorter-term benefit for downtown business owners. And so far, she said, the competition has certainly delivered on the latter.

“What we love about ArtPrize is they’re giving us this art and they’re encouraging people to go into the local businesses to eat, drink and shop,” said Evoy. “They have done a great job with that because the response to ArtPrize and the way that people have embraced the downtown businesses has really been exciting.”

Bessette said a key factor to ArtPrize is that the competition has helped some people from outlying areas rediscover downtown. Because the event was so well attended and people seemed to be enjoying themselves so much, she felt that many will return to downtown to take an even closer look at what the district has to offer.

Bessette said she had heard from only one downtown store owner who wished she had recorded more sales that weekend. Otherwise, she said ArtPrize was a big hit among the merchants and restaurant owners.

“They were pleased to see all the people that came through,” said Bessette. “I know that a lot of the other entrepreneurs will be ready and open for next year.”

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