By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — A weekly event that draws thousands of people to downtown has found itself at odds with some of the businesses it intends to support.
At issue is how much space and how many road closures will happen on 20 summertime Friday nights for Rockford City Market. A petition signed by 64 downtown business owners called for the market’s footprint to be reduced back to its prepandemic level. But city staff and City Market officials see an expanded area as safer and more conducive to helping grow the number of weekly visitors.
Now, aldermen are pitching a compromise, although it’s one they admit may still not make either side happy.
Members of the City Council’s Code and Regulation Committee on Monday voted 4-1 to reduce the market’s expanded footprint by about a block. Their vote means that State Street, like it was last year, would be shut down between Madison and Wyman streets. However, Madison Street itself would remain open for traffic and the closure of State Street would not extend east to First Street as initially proposed.
The measure will go to the full City Council next week for a vote.
Alderman Mark Bonne, who pitched the reduced footprint, said “maybe everyone would still not be happy.”
“We cannot minimize the discontent and the friction that’s going on downtown right now because of this issue,” Bonne said. “I personally have talked to people from both sides who have been in tears over this. In tears. Adults in tears over this.
“People on both sides of the issue claiming they’ve been bullied, intimidated, they feel like they can’t give an honest answer.”
Council members discussed the issue for about an hour before making the compromise vote.
‘The problem is it’s overreached’
Paul Sletten, who owns Abreo restaurant and other properties downtown, was among those pushing for the city to reject the proposed expanded footprint. He and other business owners who joined him in signing the petition said the road closures have limited access to their businesses, creating confusion for customers and vendors and leading to a loss of revenue.
Sletten said after two challenging years of the pandemic, businesses can’t afford to deal with any other disruptions.
“We’re trying to get back in the swing of things, and having the main artery and main roads to and through and around downtown shutdown for 20 weeks straight on one of the busiest nights of the week in the busiest time of the year is ridiculous.”
He said business owners agree that City Market has helped draw foot traffic to their stores and restaurants, but expanding the market area was an unnecessary overreaction to challenges created by the pandemic and by protestors who showed up weekly just outside the event grounds.
“We’re fans of the market. We are proponents of the market. We know that the market is good and has done good for downtown and for our community in so many ways,” Sletten said. “The problem is it’s overreached.”
City Market leaders point to survey data that shows patrons largely support the expanded footprint, and they say most businesses surveyed report better sales thanks to the market.
“It’s something that these downtown businesses have come to rely on, and it’s also incubated additional businesses that occupy storefronts not only downtown but throughout Rockford,” said Peter Provenzano, chairman of the Rock River Development Partnership, which manages the market.
In 2021, 60% of downtown business surveyed said their Friday business was equal to or better than their Friday sales in 2019 and 65% acknowledged spillover business from the market, according to the survey commissioned by Rock River Development Partnership. Also, 70% of those surveyed viewed the additional street closures positively and 20% said they had no opinion.
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‘Reintroduced Rockford to downtown’
Provenzano said the footprint is ultimately a decision to be made by the city as it takes into account public safety. He said City Market will accommodate whatever footprint the council chooses, but added there are unfortunate repercussions to reducing the size.
One of those, Provenzano said, is that leaving Madison Street open means CJs will not be able to have the block party-like musical performances outside the bar on Madison like it did last season.
“They had an awesome thing going on,” Provenzano said. “A really diverse crowd, incredible bands that came down to help draw that diverse crowd and it was, I think, a pretty cool celebration that right now this footprint unfortunately doesn’t accommodate.”
He also said City Market had hoped to add programming to the 300 block of State Street with more music, food trucks, skateboarding and potentially basketball outside the Fred VanVleet shop.
He added that temporary street closures for festivals and markets have become a best practice across the country, and public safety experts recommended the closures to create a safe environment for pedestrians and cars.
“You mix eight to ten thousand people on a Friday night with automobiles and it’s just not a safe thing,” Provenzano said. “It’s been a concern of ours for years. There’s been close calls. For us, it’s a much broader public safety issue.”
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City Market drew roughly 90,000 visitors last year. That’s down from it’s peak of more than 111,000 in 2019, but numbers rebounded after the coronavirus pandemic kept patrons away for much of 2020.
“It definitely has reintroduced Rockford to downtown,” Alderman Tim Durkee said of City Market. “There’s no question in my mind that this has been a very positive influence on the downtown and on the downtown businesses.”
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Provenzano said that after just 24,000 people came to City Market in 2020, they hoped to keep up the momentum from last year and draw even more people to downtown.
“This year we’d like to get that number back over 100,000,” Provenzano said. “It was great to see the rebound last year … and we want to stay on that trajectory. We believe that is what’s best for visitors and businesses alike.”
He said he hoped families would enjoy the experience of a more improved version of last year’s footprint.
“If the City Market has another 24,000 person season it’s not only bad for City Market but it’s bad for downtown,” he said. “We want to go the other way.”
‘It’s a pickle’
Bonne, who pitched the compromise, said the debate reminded him of the International Women’s Baseball Museum, when former allies found themselves disagreeing over the footprint of the museum at Beyer Stadium.
“It’s a pickle,” said Alderman Chad Tuneberg, whose 3rd Ward includes the market grounds. “It’s a no-win situation to us aldermen, the city, even the proprietors.”
City Market plans to have a later start time of 4 p.m. to allow for extended access to businesses, and it pledged to create more wayfinding and marketing about the detours and road closures in place.
Alderman Kevin Frost said he’s witnessed the benefit downtown restaurants have experienced from the market.
“When I’ve been to City Market on a Friday night and it ends, sometimes I’m not in a hurry to go back home. So the majority of times we go to places like Taco Betty, to the Capri, to a number of businesses on East State Street,” Frost said. “Frankly, we’ve had to wait in line at restaurants to get in, and that’s a good thing. It’s really a good thing that our downtown has been reactivated.”
City Market is scheduled to kick of its season May 20. It runs from 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Fridays until Sept. 30, with hours shifting to 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. after Labor Day.
Durkee, illustrating how the issue has put a rift between people who are normally aligned, quipped, “My friends want to expand the footprint, and some of my friends want to shorten it. And I’m for my friends, right?”
From City Market to downtown shops
A survey commissioned by Rock River Development Partnership, which operates Rockford City Market, showed 80% of patrons said their primary reason for coming downtown on the day they visited was the market. Here are the top 10 shops they reported visiting before or after the market:
- Rockford Art Deli
- Capri and Taco Betty’s, now 212 Grindhouse (tie)
- Prairie Street Brewing
- Irish Rose
- Bath & Body Fusion
- Salvaged by Sonya
- Midwest Rustic, Octane and Vintage 501 (tie)