I want to thank the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for drawing attention to the Major Event Ordinance currently before the Fayetteville City Council.
In January, I helped present a petition to our City Council with roughly 800 signatures requesting the city adopt a major events ordinance. It would require major events using streets and/or public parking lots for three days or more to obtain City Council approval. The ordinance was proposed because Fayetteville businesses and residents felt they ought to have a say when publicly owned property is given away for large major events.
While gathering signatures, I met a man from Austin, Texas. He and his wife were visiting Fayetteville to see if this was a place where they might want to retire. He read the petition and commented that he thought it was good that our town was dealing with this issue now. He said Austin had no mechanism to manage the number and size of events and consequently there were so many festivals and rallies in their downtown that it was maddening for both businesses and residents. Only now is Austin’s City Council beginning to deal with the problems that have developed. He saw the proposed ordinance as a very proactive measure.
One event the Major Events Ordinance could affect is Bikes, Blues & BBQ. I was in business when BBB was first proposed. It was presented as a way to bring in people during August when business is typically slower because students are gone and many of our residents are on vacation. In the beginning, the motorcycle rally lasted a day and a half. It was fun and entertaining. It didn’t disrupt our town in any significant way or hurt any businesses.
The story 16 years later is quite different. The festival has experienced tremendous growth. When something grows that fast and becomes that big, the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play.
It’s an event that according to the BBB website brings nearly 400,000 people to our area. Because of the noise and traffic, many of our residents leave town. Many who can’t leave choose to stay home for the duration of the event.
Although it has a tremendous economic impact, not all of it is positive. If a comprehensive study were done, I think we would find many of the businesses in downtown Fayetteville are hurt by this event. Some even close their doors or lay off employees for the long weekend. It’s now an event held in September when our local businesses typically are doing well. So it hurts them at a most inopportune time. It’s an event that causes our Farmer’s Market to have its worst week of the year, during a time when harvests are robust.
As BBB grew there was no public forum in which our residents and business owners could share what the negative effects to our town are. These effects should be considered when giving away city streets and parking lots — it makes sense to try to mitigate the negative effects of any event. The intent of the ordinance is not to get rid of BBB but to manage it and other major events. Small businesses and residents don’t have the means to hire a marketing company to get their story out. We depend on an open, accessible and transparent government to help in that process.
A recent editorial mentioned that this event is good because it gives us national exposure. I would argue that we already have great national exposure. Fayetteville is on many top 10 lists of places to live, go to school, start a business or retire. Saying that BBB gives us national exposure is not a compelling enough reason to deny citizen input in the permitting process for major events.
The editorial also supported the argument that this ordinance shouldn’t be adopted because the event can’t shrink to a two-day festival. The vendors need longer stays for them to be profitable. This is protecting the out-of-town vendors at the expense of many local businesses. This is a great argument for a promoter to make but I want my representatives on the Fayetteville City Council to hear our voices and how it affects our businesses, their employees and Fayetteville’s residents.
The editorial stated this ordinance was nothing more than a “grab for authority.” I would argue this ordinance is an attempt to put the decision where it belongs, in the hands of our elected aldermen. I don’t see a more democratic process available to us.
Festivals and rallies generally start off as a one- or two-day event. This ordinance would not affect any of those events. It’s only when an organizer would want to expand it to a three-day event that this ordinance would be triggered. Major festivals and rallies help to define a city. I believe it only appropriate to ask our City Council to be part of that process.
All this ordinance is asking for is Fayetteville City Council approval when a major event wants to be a part of our town. This is a very reasonable and measured request. It sets a precedent that the right to have a major event in Fayetteville is in the hands of its elected representatives and not merely a permitting process. It gives us a proactive tool that is democracy friendly and will help Fayetteville manage future festivals and rallies.
I believe if we don’t pass this ordinance now, in the future we will wish we had.
Cary Arsaga is a longtime Northwest Arkansas resident and a Fayetteville business owner since 1992.