News: Ujima Fest's Street Closings Blamed for Lost Restaurant Business

Ujima Cinci-Bration festival organizers are applauding their efforts to keep downtown restaurants open during the festival, Friday through Sunday. But some restaurant managers say there is nothing

Jul 22, 1999 at 2:06 pm

Ujima Cinci-Bration festival organizers are applauding their efforts to keep downtown restaurants open during the festival, Friday through Sunday. But some restaurant managers say there is nothing organizers can do to keep doors open at certain restaurants that keep losing business during the African-American festival, which takes place downtown during the Coors Light Music Festival at Cinergy Field.

Last year, the newly created Ujima festival was heralded as successful in providing a family environment and quelling violence that erupted downtown during the jazz festival in 1997.

"(Last year), there were no problems in terms of physical safety concerns," said David Bell, general manager of Nicholson's Tavern & Pub on Walnut Street, which actively campaigned for restaurants to stay open during the event. "There were problems with the roads being shut down and with people who had reservations and could not get here."

Nicholson's, which was open and staffed for a full house, did about a tenth of its normal business, losing almost all of 150 Saturday night reservations because customers could not get into the area, Bell said. After they learned that police again felt it was necessary to close roads to maintain control this year, Nicholson's decided it would not stay open this year to repeat its loses, Bell said.

But Larry Davis, media coordinator of the Ujima Cinci-Bration, said organizers had been working hard to resolve restaurant owners' concerns. Downtown Cincinnati Inc. has tracked restaurants that planned to stay open — 18 as of July 19 — and has printed a locator map, which will be distributed to festival-goers.

"I think this would be a great opportunity for restaurants to stay open and be cordial because a lot of the people attending the event are on vacation and have money to spend," Davis said.

"Businesses that realize that will do well."

But Bell and some other managers whose restaurants are affected by street closures said their sales stood to drop no matter what. In fact, all managers interviewed claimed significant financial losses during the weekend of the Coors Light Festival.

Cristen Merrick, manager of The Cincinnati Coffee Co. on East Seventh Street, said the cafe's business was notoriously bad during the jazz festival weekend, and it likely would not be open during the event again.

"We did not do any business," she said.

Police, Bell said, did succeed last year at maintaining control. But street closures come at a cost, which Bell said could be demonstrated by Nicholson's soaring sales during the Taste of Cincinnati festival during which street closures did not affect his business. During Ujima, Fifth Street will be closed from Race to Broadway. So will all streets from Fourth to Sixth streets that connect Fifth Street between Race and Broadway. Safety is the reason for street closures during the weekend events, police Lt. Paul Humphries said.

"We are putting people going to the festival or who live downtown at risk if we don't control the traffic," Humphries said.

He said that, generally, cruising is associated with events like the Coors Light Music Festival and Ujima Cinci-Bration. Cruising causes gridlock and can prevent emergency services from reaching emergency incidents or situations.

That was the case in 1997, when problems erupted downtown during the Coors Light festival and gridlock prevented services from reaching a burning car, he said.

"The car burned to the ground," Humphries said.

Events like Oktoberfest or Taste of Cincinnati do not require extensive street closures because cruising and gridlock are not associated with those events, he said.

But events such as Riverfest or Tall Stacks do require traffic perimeters because of the large crowds that attend.

"Riverfest requires restricted access because of gridlock, not cruising," Humphries said. "If we don't restrict access, we are doing a disservice to the community."

Blaming lost business from street closures, some restaurants managers, who spoke only on the condition that their names not be used, are altering their hours of operation to close early. The dramatic loss in business is after 8 p.m., some said.

One restaurant manager said that because the flow of traffic from the two festivals tended to stay between Fifth and Third streets, many businesses north of those streets did not see much business from the festival.

Another manager said his restaurant on Walnut Street depended on regulars and reservations for the majority of its business. Because of traffic, parking congestion and street closures, the restaurant will be closed for the weekend of the festivals, he said.

Another manager said his restaurant's sales dipped from $10,000 on an average Sunday to $1,500 on Sunday during last year's festival weekend.

Davis said that research conducted at last year's event showed festival-goers had three complaints.

"They were concerned with street closures, parking problems and also places to eat," Davis said. "The majority of them said they couldn't find places to sit down and eat during the weekend."

He said restaurants complaining of lost sales from last year's festival might not have been as busy as expected because people did not know they were open or had trouble finding them. One of the bigger problems was that people who wanted to eat late had few options, he said. If a restaurant is even a couple of blocks away from the festival core, out-of-town visitors might have trouble locating it, Davis said.

"About 27,000 people came from out-of-town not knowing the city very well," he said.

The restaurant locator map is expected to solve that problem this year, Davis said, though most restaurant managers CityBeat interviewed said it would not.

Davis continues to urge them to stay open anyway.

Feedback from hotels in the downtown area has been generally good, Davis said. There was a presentation made to a number of hotels on July 15 to update them on plans for Ujima and the Coors Light Festival, he said.

"The general reaction there was (hotel) representatives sang praises about the event last year," Davis said.