A meeting between about 15 downtown business owners and the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce was held May 29 after a petition to move Toad Suck Daze festival out of Downtown Conway had collected 43 signatures.
Sherry Smith, co-owner of Fletcher Smith’s Jeweler’s, said it’s a complicated issue because on one hand the festival is important to the community and the culture of Conway, but on the other it’s hurting downtown businesses.
With about 150,000 people coming to Downtown Conway for Toad Suck Daze, one would think there would be ample opportunity for Conway’s small, local businesses to cash in, but some say it’s the exact opposite.
Larry Rogers, owner of EM Jeans, said he had to close his store an hour early on Saturday night due to the sheer number of people who were looking for a cool place to hang out before the concert or a place to come in and use the bathroom.
Sena Crafton, owner of Grand on Oak, said she closes her store the entire weekend because festivalgoers aren’t coming to the festival to shop.
“Weekends are what we survive on,” she said.
Fletcher Smith’s Jeweler’s also closes for the weekend. Smith’s insurance company has told her with that many people downtown, in order for the jewelry store to open, it would need to pay for additional insurance coverage and suggests hiring an armed guard.
“When you get that many people in a crowd, there’s a chance you’re going to have some theft,” Crafton said.
Smith said she’s heard the argument that Toad Suck is “only two days,” but it actually affects business for at least a week, she said, because customers know the city is preparing and setting up the festival and they steer clear of downtown.
“Those days could make the difference between paying your bills or not,” she said.
Kordsmeier Furniture has been in Downtown Conway since 1949. , Owner Ray Kordsmeier said with so many people and so many things going on, it’s not going to be a great day for shopping, but over the years he’s figured out a way to have successful business days during the festival.
Kordsmeier said simple things like having your door open, letting festivalgoers use your restroom and bringing in lower cost merchandise helps him have a successful Toad Suck Daze experience.
Marla Stanton, owner of Blue Kite Boutique, said businesses can’t treat Toad Suck Daze like a regular business day.
“You have to adapt and fit to the festival,” she said.
Blue Kite Boutique had a Sidewalk Sale pulling out some of their clearance and local, handmade items they thought would appeal to a festival crowd.
“We had lots of new customers from out of town and all over the state,” Stanton said. “You don’t get that opportunity every weekend.”
Mike Coats, owner of Mike’s Place, said he signed the petition because he’d like to see Downtown Conway have three good weekends a year with Hendrix College and the University of Central Arkansas’ graduation each on a separate weekend than Toad Suck Daze.
Coats said he could do a “great Saturday” with UCA’s graduation, if his customers have access to and from the front door, but he could generate double the sales tax revenue if the event was held exclusively from Toad Suck.
All business owners wanted to make is clear that they aren’t against the festival, and that they are glad the chamber recognizes the need for dialogue.
“When we heard there was a petition being circulated we wanted to meet with people to hear their concerns,” said Brad Lacy, president and CEO of the chamber.
After hearing from business owners, the next step for the chamber will be sharing their concerns with the full chamber board, the Toad Suck Daze committee and festival sponsors.
“The festival belongs to the chamber we want the board to chime in and hear concerns that are out there and start making decisions about what we do,” he said.
Lacy said, “from where we sit,” the chamber thinks there are three things to discuss: keeping the festival downtown, moving it to the fairgrounds or “a third option, that we don’t do [Toad Suck Daze] anymore, and that’s a real option to discuss,” he said.
Many of the business owners think the easiest solution would be to move Toad Suck Daze to the fairgrounds, but the chamber disagrees.
Rogers said he’d like to see Toad Suck become a community wide event with concerts downtown and carnival rides at the fairgrounds instead of a “big group of people in one place.”
“We need better flow,” he said.
Lacy said spreading the festival throughout the city would essentially “kill it,” and Conway Corporation has already told the chamber, the fairgrounds doesn’t have the power requirements needed to support the number of vendors and rides.
Crafton said ideally she hopes the city can start building infrastructure this year, and the chamber can move Toad Suck Daze to the fairgrounds in two years.
Lacy said this may be the hardest, most complex issues he’s dealt with since being in his job and the only issue he doesn’t know what the right answer is.
“It’s impossible to make everyone happy when your constituents are businesses, the public, sponsors, children— there’re a lot of people who have a stake in this, and I’m not sure there’s a point where everyone is happy,” he said.
The chamber board will meet June 19, and Lacy said he is going to try to clear the agenda, so they can focus solely on the future of Toad Suck Daze.