KEVIN LEININGER: Do the benefits of a street festival justify the costs? New Haven looking at future of ‘Canal Days’

Broadway in New Haven closes every year to make way for Canal Days' midway, but many business owners aren't happy about it and want the festival to change. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Business at Rack & Helen's Bar and Grill can drop by 40 percent furing Canal Days, owner Wes Anderson says. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Charles Hatten
Terry McDonald
Kevin Leininger

Street festivals are as American as apple pie, but in the normally quiet city of New Haven the future of Canal Days is creating plenty of noise between downtown business owners who say the event costs them thousands of dollars every year and supporters who insist there’s a greater good at stake.

A special joint public meeting of the Board of Works and City Council tentatively set for Aug. 28 will seek public input about how or whether to change a festival that’s been around since at least the mid-1970s, but a compromise may prove elusive because there are plenty of good arguments on both sides and no immediate alternative to the major impediment to harmony: the week-long closure of thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of the central business district.

“If you don’t like something, get involved. That’s why I ran for mayor,” McDonald said during an occasionally heated Board of Works meeting Tuesday. “We can do a better job. We are New Haven, and bulldogs (the high school’s mascot) never give up.”

For now, though, neither side seems ready to give in.

“It’s not for me to put on a festival. If I don’t advocate for my business, who will?” said Rack & Helen’s owner Wes Anderson, who said business at his bar and grill at 525 Broadway can drop 40 percent during Canal Days — a drop that also affects employee tips. And Anderson’s plight is not unique: New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Charles Hatten, downtown businesses reported a collective dip of $85,000 during the June festival this year, and a recent survey posted on line and included with utility bills indicated that out of 106 responses from persons who attended, 84 did not visit any of the Broadway shops — three of which closed completely during the event for fear customers could not reach them because of the street closure, lack of parking and other concerns.

Anderson wants Broadway to remain open at least most of the time, which would require moving or eliminating the carnival rides festival committee chairman Jon Stauffer said generates the $20,000 or more every year that is used to operate the event and support various local organizations.

But Mark Anderson, owner of Andy’s Knockout Chicken at 404 Broadway, insists his nephew Wes needs to look at the bigger picture. “For a handful of businesses to dictate (like this) is ridiculous. The streets belong to the residents, and Canal Days means more than businesses operating downtown.”

With Canal Days drawing an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 visitors every year, New Haven Director of Planning and Economic Development Brian Yoh suggested businesses stop complaining and start working harder to lure people off the street and into their stores.

That’s just the point, Hatten said: Broadway is closed all day, even though most Canal Day activities (except on weekends) don’t start until late afternoon or evening. McDonald was correct when he noted that nobody forces businesses to close during Canal Days, but as Wes Anderson and others see it the merchants are forced to endure the downside of closing the street while receiving few of the benefits.

Frankly, this sort of debate is probably not uncommon, even if the concerns seldom become as public as they were in New Haven this week. Prolonged street closures even for the best of civic reasons inevitably cause disruption, and even Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Festival over the years has not been immune to complaints that it had become stale or negatively affected local restaurants and other businesses.

To its credit, Fort Wayne’s festival seems to have rejuvenated itself in recent years, in part by restoring popular features such as the raft and bed races. In New Haven, some are hoping for the return of such Canal Day staples as the outhouse race and cow ship toss, and Wes Anderson believes the festival needs more such unique local attractions and fewer roving carnival-type activities that take money out of the community while leaving relatively little behind.

“Maybe we need to change (the festival’s) focus,” Board of Works member Mickey Hill suggested.

Sure, but how? The Board of Works last year suggested finding an alternate spot for the rides, but the most logical place — the parking lot of New Haven Middle School — will be unavailable for at least a few years because of construction and demolition and the East Allen County Schools may not want the liability anyway.

Yoh was wrong to call concerned business owners “selfish,” but both sides seem to agree he was right to insist Canal Days be preserved because it “gives New Haven identity.” New Haven residents will have a chance to define that identity later this month, and communities facing similar conflicts may want to pay attention. And if those residents don’t make their wishes known, Board of Works members made it clear they don’t want to hear another round of complaints about the outcome.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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