Complaints extend to the town’s official Main Street organization, which some merchants say has been lukewarm in its support as well.
The kerfuffle stems from a series of downtown Street Fests staged by a group of merchants this summer and fall. One Friday a month, bands played; businesses stayed open late; and shoppers were invited to join the festive atmosphere.
But after a three-month run, town leaders reined in the party. Dancers couldn’t take to the streets to perform without getting formal permission to stop traffic. Tents set up by merchants in parking spaces along Main Street had to go. And a banner strung across Main Street in the week leading up to Street Fest was ordered to come down.
Town leaders explained that the festival hadn’t gone through proper channels to block traffic, put up tents along the street or drape the banner between buildings.
But to merchants who organized the Street Fests, the kibosh on the festivities was a slap in the face symbolizing a larger chasm between a new generation of downtown business owners and the town.
“We ran into this huge roadbloc, which is the town,” said Matt Bateman, owner of the website Stay and Play in the Smokies with an office in downtown Franklin. “We were portrayed as rebels and not willing to play with the system.”
Downtown Franklin can arguably use all the new energy it can get, so it puzzled Bateman when the town, in his opinion, threw the book of rules at Street Fest.
“Before, you could drive through downtown on a Friday at 6 o’clock, and it was shut down,” Bateman said.
The Street Fests generated a buzz around downtown, with the hope of putting Main Street merchants on shoppers’ radar so to speak. And it was working.
“People came up to merchants and said, ‘Man, I had no idea you were here,’” Bateman said. “Whether they bought something that evening or not, that is marketing that doesn’t have a price tag.”
Downtown Franklin has seen a wave of new businesses open in the past five years and with them, have come new ideas for a more prosperous — and perhaps even a hipper — downtown.
“We would like to see a vibrant downtown that is full of life and with businesses unique to this area,” said Cory McCall, owner of Outdoor 76. “That’s why we’ve been as passionate as we are because we have a long-term vision for Franklin”
Outdoor 76 opened its doors three years ago as downtown’s first outfitter’s shop, paying homage to the plethora of outdoor recreation around Franklin.
The outdoor retailer embodies the shift afoot in downtown Franklin. It will soon take over the anchor storefront occupied for decades by People’s Department store, which is going out of business.
For young business owners like McCall, who have married their future to downtown’s success or failure, staging the Street Fests was a way of taking matters into their own hands.
“The more things you have downtown, the more people are going to pay attention and want to come,” said Martha Holbrook, the owner of Rosebud Cottage, a gift shop and sandwich counter. “What we were after was a new generation of shopper. We were trying to bring younger people downtown.”
Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood said the town wasn’t intentionally trying to stymie the efforts of the merchants. But by the same token, the town couldn’t let merchants stop traffic to make way for a Zumba dance, a type of aerobic dance.
“You can’t just have a bunch of people block Main Street for five minutes without any permission whatsoever,” Greenwood said.
As for the banner, it was initially OK’d by the town planner. But, the town recanted after realizing it had opened up a slippery slope. Since the debut of the first Street Fest banner, other groups began to come forward wanting banners for their events as well.
Town leaders decided to suspend banners being strung over Main Street until it could come up with a formal policy — even though the downtown merchants spent $300 getting the banner made on the premise it met town requirements.
What miffed downtown merchants most, however, was that the rules were imposed at the 11th hour — just a couple of weeks before their October event.
They were told to get permission before putting up their tents, hanging their banner or halting traffic. But to get that permission, they had to come before the town board, which wouldn’t be meeting again until November — well after the upcoming Street Fest came and went.
“There was no willingness to help us explore outlets or find a solution. That’s the kicker,” Bateman said.
The town contends it did offer up alternatives, however, like doing the Zumba dance in a parking lot at one end of Main Street instead of the street itself — or hanging the banner on the lawn of town hall, which is where banners for other town festivals always go.
“We didn’t just say ‘No, you can’t do it,’” said Linda Schlott, the director of the town’s official Main Street Program. “That option was offered to them.”
While the timing was unfortunate, it wasn’t an intentional move to sideline the festivities, according to Greenwood. There were safety issues at play, particularly with the food tents set up by merchants in empty parking spaces along the streets. With parked cars on either side, Greenwood was concerned an inattentive driver might wheel into one of the spaces and hit the vendors or customers. They were also just a few feet from passing traffic, with no protection of a curb.
“The town can’t afford to look the other way. We are liable for all that,” Greenwood said. “Part of the problem was they didn’t know how to apply and get permission for things. All of those things have to be approved in advance.”
Bateman said the town’s portrayal of Street Fest isn’t altogether fair.
“The town board portrayed it like we were cutting corners to try to make this festival happen,” Bateman said.
Sandy Pantaleo, owner of Main Street Coffee & Tea, said the town is partly to blame for not having clear set of rules or a checklist that lets people know what exactly they have to comply with.
“We’re a responsible group of concerned merchants,” Pantaleo said. “We don’t want to skirt rules and regulations as long as they’re uniform for all events.”
Greenwood said the town will develop such a checklist. The town just never realized they would need written protocols for such things.
“I would have never predicted that people would want to close the street to Zumba dance in the middle of the street,” Schloot said.
Pantaleo said merchants are simply trying to bring new ideas and energy to downtown and should be perceived as a partner rather than a threat.
Smoky Mountain News Staff Writer Andrew Kasper contributed to this article.