Durham News: Opinion

Time to move Centerfest out of downtown – Nick Hawthorne-Johnson

An open letter to Durham Arts Council board members and Centerfest stakeholders:

Centerfest is a wonderful event that brings many artists from abroad and much culture from outside Durham into our city. It should be supported and celebrated, as it has been a part of Durham for many years.

It should also be relocated to a more suitable venue for this legacy event.

Our downtown landscape has changed dramatically in the decades since Centerfest’s inception, and we need to reevaluate its impact on our city’s center.

Centerfest was once a valuable tool for breathing life into an otherwise empty and inactive downtown. Since it began 42 years ago, downtown has changed dramatically. Go out on the streets on a weekend night in September and you will see pedestrians walking about, enjoying the outdoor seating, bars, restaurants, hotels, galleries, shops, shows and general lively atmosphere that we have all worked so hard to create in recent years.

Centerfest’s location in downtown, which used to be a boom for the area, has now become a nuisance to the businesses that work hard every day to make downtown the destination it has become. Closing downtown streets for Centerfest is now causing economic damage to and frustration for our downtown businesses.

As our downtown has evolved, we as a city have failed to adjust our calculus about Centerfest’s impact. It is time to modernize our approach to hosting this event. Centerfest should be relocated to a more appropriate venue.

Once Centerfest closes in the afternoon, downtown Durham becomes a ghost town. Whole blocks look like old western movies with shuttered storefronts after the vendors close for the day and the entire scene is both confusing and uninviting to pedestrians. Parking, already a very real challenge for downtown, becomes even more difficult and residents of Durham don’t want to come downtown and deal with this inconvenience.

It is true that some businesses are focused primarily on sales and services that happen during the day and some do well during Centerfest. For those of us in the hospitality business, the vast majority our revenue is generated during and after dinnertime. Hosting Centerfest in the streets of downtown kills evening sales, the lifeblood of downtown’s hospitality businesses.

Durham has become known across the country as a destination for food and drink, and we as a city need to be mindful of this status and supportive of the businesses who have garnered us this reputation. These are businesses that operate on slim margins and depend on Friday and Saturday night sales to remain healthy and prosperous.

The pain of the decline in sales caused by Centerest’s location on the streets of downtown is made all the more hard to swallow by the fact that Centerfest occurs as the cooler weather is arriving and bringing with it a much needed increase in revenue for these businesses.

We as a city have spent a great deal of time and money to create Durham Central Park, which is a perfect venue for Centerfest. This location would provide not only a beautiful and pleasant venue for the event, but could be a boom for downtown businesses as its proximity to downtown would allow attendees to venture into downtown and patronize the businesses there without the inconvenience caused by closing so many downtown streets. This seems like an obvious solution to the problems caused by these closures.

The majority of the businesses and artists that exhibit at Centerfest are not local Durham based businesses. They are traveling exhibitors that follow festival circuits far from their permanent locations and homes. This year Centerfest hosted exhibitors from six states. These businesses don’t pay property tax in Durham, and there is no proof that these businesses collect and remit sales tax for the transactions that they complete while here in Durham.

Local businesses pay property taxes, collect and remit sales tax, maintain clean sidewalks in front of our locations and invest in the community every day. It is time for Centerfest to be an event that is good for everyone in downtown. The way for that to happen is to move it to Durham Central Park, or another appropriate location near downtown beginning in 2017.

Nick Hawthorne Johnson and Rochelle Johnson are the owners of The Cast Iron Group, with Dashi Restaurant, 415 E. Chapel Hill St.; Ponysaurus Brewing Co., 219 Hood St.; and The Cookery, 1101 W. Chapel Hill St.