ROCKFORD — In the days following the city’s decision to close the State Street Bridge on Friday nights this summer, downtown businesses — particularly those on the west side — say they’re facing an uncertain summer.
“Everybody is in survival mode downtown,” said Patrick Alberto, owner of Octane, a popular downtown cafe. “We survived 2020, and obviously we survived 2021, but it’s not like what it was in 2018 and 2019. … We lost close to 40 percent of our business, and we’re still crawling out of that today.”
This will mark the second year that city leaders have decided to close a portion of State Street in support of City Market, a weekly outdoor event that features various vendors and entertainment and attracts thousands of people.
Instead of benefitting from that influx of potential customers and guests, many downtown businesses say the market has been doing the opposite since road closures were initiated.
They say the closures make it so fewer customers come through their doors on Fridays. Those that do, complain that it wasn’t easy to get there.
“From our standpoint, anything that disrupts the way the traffic flows down here is not good,” said Doc Slafkosky, co-owner of J.R. Kortman Center for Design, an art gallery and gift shop located just a couple of doors down from Octane on the city’s Main Street.
“The idea of the State Street Bridge being closed is really disconcerting.”
Even more troubling for business owners like Slafkosky and Alberto is the City Council’s decision to still close State Street after more than 500 people — including more than 70 downtown businesses — signed the Keep State Open petition that they and others circulated before last week’s City Council meeting.
“What more do they need?” Slafkosky said.
Compromise to bring cross-promotion
Since the founding of the Rock River Development Partnership in 2009 and its first outdoor market in 2010, City Market has operated in and around the parking lot at East State and Water streets.
For 20 consecutive Fridays from late May to late September, City Market traditionally opens at 3:30 p.m. and closes at 8:30 p.m. before Labor Day, and 7:30 p.m. after the holiday.
In 2019, the market attracted a record 111,000 visitors.
In 2020, the year of the novel coronavirus pandemic and nationwide civil unrest sparked by the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, attendance plummeted to 24,000 visitors.
To accommodate social distancing guidelines and to push back against protester clashes with police, the footprint of the market was expanded in 2021 by closing State Street between Wyman and First streets and Madison Street between State and Market streets. Attendance rebounded to the tune of nearly 90,000 visitors.
City Market organizers requested the same street closures this year.
City Council approved what it called a “compromise” Monday night, agreeing to keep Madison Street open and closing State Street from Wyman to Madison.
In an effort to keep the State Street Bridge open a little longer, the market will open at 4 p.m. this summer.
In a statement to the Register Star, Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said, “In coordination with the market, there will be a concerted effort to cross-promote the downtown businesses throughout the market season with media partners.”
He said State Street will reopen “immediately” after the market closes.
Feeling cut off
Father and son Thomas and Michael Minnihan are co-owners of Minnihan’s, a bar located in the historic William Brown building, just down the street from Octane and Kortman’s on south Main.
Michael Minnihan estimated the bar saw a 30 percent decrease in revenue on Fridays, due in large part to the closure of East State Street.
“It really does truly take away from the traffic that comes across the bridge to get to the businesses on the other side,” Thomas Minnihan said
“I get that they can reroute them, but if you get somebody that really doesn’t know downtown and when they see that the bridge is blocked off, it just gets to be frustrating for them.”
The decision has left west side business owners, and perhaps even residents in that part of town, feeling cut off and disconnected from the festive market and the rest of the city, Thomas Minnihan said. He’s not sure how the city can fix that.
Officials at Monday’s City Council meeting said there will be more signs put up this year, too, to help direct motorists to the Jefferson Street and the Chestnut Street bridges on either side of State Street over the Rock River.
Slafkosky called those thoroughfares swift-moving, one-way “chutes.”
“It’s not that they don’t take people here, but most of the things that people want to do are not on those streets,” he said. “They’re on State Street, and they are on Main Street.”
City Market’s opening day is May 20.
Chris Green: 815-397-6412; [email protected]; @chrisfgreen
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Rockford businesses say City Market street closures cut them off