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Friday Night Live sparks lively debate

Some business owners upset over street closures for this year's event

June 7, 2011

Friday Night Live in downtown Waukesha is supposed to be a fun event where music, dancing and eating is on people's mind.

While this all happened at last week's first Friday Night Live of the summer, not everyone has been dancing and smiling about the way this year's version looks.

That's because after an almost year-long debate, the Waukesha Police Department decided to close several downtown streets for this year's event.

"We're very frustrated," said Jeff Barta, owner of the cigar bar, Nice Ash, located on 327 W. Main St. "We have no need to close streets. Streets are for cars and should be for cars, but no one is listening to the people downtown. There is obviously no concern for these businesses."

Barta said he is one of 30 business owners located downtown who has issues with the street closures, which include Main Street from Maple Avenue to Barstow Street and most of Clinton and Broadway streets.

But the Waukesha Police Department insists this has to be done for safety's sake.

"The number of patrons has grown to the point where they sometimes can no longer safely walk or stand within the confines of the sidewalks and blocked off parking stalls currently used," Police Chief Russell Jack said. Jack said the department has been in contact with concerned citizens and held meetings with downtown business leaders and political figures for the past year.

He added some of the options were to close down the event altogether, shut down café dining, move stages to other locations or block selected streets to safely allow more room.

The department chose the later and this has angered Barta even though he said he is not upset with police.

"The police are just responding to the way the event is being presenting to them," Barta said. "I have no argument with that at all. But by closing the streets, we're reinforcing that we're a difficult city to get around and that we have a parking problem."

Anthony Colletti, general manager of The Clarke Hotel - located at 314 W. Main St., agreed with Barta's stance.

"It's an inconvenience," Colletti said. "I have to bring our guests to the back door. One or two nights are fine, but every Friday is very difficult since Friday is our hotel's busiest time."

Like Barta, Colletti said he knows Friday Night Live is beneficial for the downtown area.

But they both indicated that because the event takes place every week until the end of September, it causes problems.

"It is a good event before street closures," Barta said. "There has been no consideration or any recognition that it needs better management."

Colletti also said his voice and others has been ignored.

"I feel this has been a secluded decision," Colletti said. "I feel there needs to be change. We want to work with everyone on this. I'm willing to give a little and take a little. There are a number of solutions, but for some reason it's very difficult to get everyone on board."

On the opposite side, Lynn Gaffey, of Almont Gallery, - located at 342 W. Main St. - has taken a clear stand against Barta and Colletti.

"I think they're just making a mountain out of a molehill," Gaffey said. "They are just a couple of rabble rousers."

Gaffey added there are few drawbacks to the closures.

"It's the best solution," Gaffey said. "The people in charge have done a terrific job. It's going to be safer for the pedestrians. The concerns by some are foolish."

Barta, however, does not see it this way.

In fact, he sees a simple solution to all of this.

"If there was a different model it could change," Barta said. "With better stage placement they could minimize closing streets. If there was better preparation, we could avoid street closures. If there was better crowd management, it could be avoided, but that's not happening. I think with some simple planning this could be avoided."

The streets were closed toward the end of last summer after crowds continued to increase. Barta said he did not lose business over that time period. But he said over the long-term, the street closures will change people's traffic patterns.

Barta also said he addressed these concerns to the Waukesha Downtown Business Association but indicated there has been no cooperation.

"They're in control," Barta said. "They're hiding behind the fact police say it's a safety concern."

To try to get a better feel as to where all the businesses stand, the Waukesha Business Improvement District Executive Committee approved a preliminary survey to be put on its website within two weeks.

The survey asks BID constituents their opinion on the closures.

"I've heard both sides of the argument," Executive Director of the Business Improvement District Meghan Sprager said. "But any time we can bring in thousands of people, that's a wonderful thing for the community."

While the end result might not please everyone, Jack said that's not his concern.

"It is not the position of the department to make decisions based on popularity or what may be in the best interests for individuals or their businesses," Jack said. "Most importantly, we are making our decisions based on what is safest for our community and visitors."

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