With flavors like Raspberry Truffle, Cotton Candy and Burgundy Cherry, Storm Bros. Ice Cream Factory has never had a problem luring walk-in customers to its perch near City Dock in downtown Annapolis. The 35-year-old shop's location in one of Maryland's most heavily visited tourist areas has mostly been a blessing, says owner Svienn C. Storm — a line of eager patrons often snakes along the sidewalk outside the shop on a sunny afternoon.
But lately, he said, the downtown spot has had a significant downside. Summer sales are crucial for Storm Bros., and a growing number of seasonal festivals — and the vendors that come with them — have taken a big bite out of his business in recent years, he said.
"The City Dock is always packed; it's already an attraction," Storm said. "We don't need a festival to bring people downtown. When you bring ice cream vendors down there every weekend, that really harms my business. It cuts sales dramatically."
A group of downtown businesses has loudly complained this year about the way Annapolis handles festivals. Among their gripes are loud music, a shortage of on-street parking and direct competition for retail dollars on everything from burgers and fries to sunglasses.
The debate has grown testy. Some business owners are unwilling to speak out, saying they've been threatened with boycotts by festival supporters, while others criticize the city for not following its own regulations in dealing with street vendors. Sean O'Neill, president of the Annapolis Business Association, said local businesses have complained that the downtown celebrations are hurting their trade. Now, city officials are working on a plan that they hope will allow the brick-and-mortar businesses to coexist with the festivals and their traveling vendors.
"It's not that they're against festivals. They're against the way that they're run," O'Neill said. "What [businesses] want is some oversight and a little bit of input."
The issue came to a head this year, as many downtown businesses struggle in a tough economy and as shoppers are increasingly lured from the historic shopping district to areas such as Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole and Westfield Annapolis Mall just outside town.
Suzie Galler, who produces the popular summer entertainment series Summer at City Dock that has run for the past three years, argues that the festivals exist to help downtown shops. In an online message board for downtown residents, she wrote that it saddens her that an arts festival "intended to do good for the downtown business district" would become a "hot button for people to lay blame and accusations."
"We started this to help businesses that were crying out for assistance as more and more storefronts were closing," Galler wrote. "In order for Annapolis to compete for tourists with other small towns, it needs to reinvent itself from time to time, try new things, think outside the box."
"We are not at war with anyone," she added.
Joe Budge, president of the Ward One Residents Association, which represents downtown, is working with civic and business groups to devise new policies and procedures and recommend them to city officials. He said the city has not done enough to stop violations of the alcoholic beverage and zoning codes, and has not cracked down on City Dock vendors who he believes are unlicensed.
"The fact that there is no plan is the current problem," Budge said. "The City Dock and the downtown area is a limited resource, and it can't be all things to all people."
Mayor Joshua J. Cohen has acknowledged that for several years Annapolis has not followed regulations that require city council approval for outside events in the historic district downtown. He characterized the lapse as "just an oversight" and said the city corrected the practice as soon as it found out. Cohen has directed his special events coordinator to work on the issue with the council, which recently passed a resolution requiring a city staffer to be on hand and monitor all downtown festivals.
"What we're seeing is that more and more people want to put on festivals," said Cohen, a Democrat. "And without a clear basis for making a judgment call whether a festival will be good or bad, things can get out of hand. Frankly, whatever the city council ends up adopting, it needs to reflect the fact that there is no one festival that is going to please everybody. Annapolis is way too diverse a place for that."
Downtown Annapolis has long been a popular site for annual celebrations such as the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, to be held Sept. 2 in honor of the enslaved African who was brought to the port in 1767 and was immortalized in the novel and TV series "Roots." Other popular events include the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association's Annapolis Race Week, a three-day sailing regatta at City Dock that begins Sept. 3.
According to statistics compiled by the city, up to one-third of all events held in Annapolis since 2006 have been at City Dock.
And while some downtown businesses may see an uptick in foot traffic, boosting their bottom lines, others have long complained about the noise and unwanted competition from vendors selling food, drinks and trinkets already available in local shops. Some business owners say the festivals often take up already limited street parking space.
"It's very hard when these guys come in and are able to steal the cream right off the top on a beautiful Saturday," said Jim Fishback, who has been general manager of McGarvey's Saloon on Market Space for 25 years. As people spend less because of the down economy, he said, competition with outside vendors only makes it tougher for the eateries and stores that sustain downtown. "As we struggle along, and we can't retain staff or we can't get the building painted, it starts to show on the face of the city."
O'Neill, whose business group is working with others in the community to gather data from recent festivals, said the low number of vacancies downtown indicates businesses there are doing well. Most of the empty storefronts, he noted, have pending building permits.
City officials recently announced that operating hours for the newly reopened Market House would be extended because of the "popularity of the new vendors," a promising sign for the long-troubled market.
But O'Neill said businesses need to be able to vent.
"The business community doesn't have the ability to give feedback or raise concerns about an event at City Dock," O'Neill said. "There's no public forum for them to raise their voices. … When there's an event, and the trash truck can't get down to the store to pick up trash, it becomes an issue that bleeds into the neighbors. We need a forum."
Ruby Singleton-Blakeney, the Kunta Kinte festival chairwoman, said the one-day festival draws more than 7,000 people and takes pains not to offer items sold by local businesses. Instead, it offers visitors items tied to the African experience, such as African-print clothing, shea butter and heaping plates of curried goat.
"It's too important to not only African-Americans, but to everyone in Annapolis," said Singleton-Blakeney. "The Kunta Kinte festival is unlike other festivals. It's not just a festival. It's part of the history of the city of Annapolis."
Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun