Organizers of the Sarasota Chalk Festival are preparing for their fifth festival, an event that draws international artists and thousands of event-goers to Burns Square.
Festival volunteers are ready to welcome the 50 international artists that will participate in this year’s 10-day event. They are also putting the finishing touches on new features including two life-size elephant sculptures that will greet festival-goers.
For the past few Sundays, volunteers such as Jill Kelly have been working in a warehouse to make props, such as circus posters, that will tie into the festival’s “Circus City” theme.
“It’s the only not-for-profit, all-volunteer festival in Sarasota that draws international artists,” said Kelly.
Monday, city commissioners moved forward by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Willie Shaw dissenting, with plans to allow the Chalk Festival to keep artwork on the street for up to 30 days after the event ends.
But, about a month before the event, a contingent of nearby businesses has voiced concerns that the festival’s requested 10-day street closure will deter local and seasonal customers during one of the most awaited weeks of the tourism season. Even though the seven-day festival brought hundreds of thousands of people to the area last year, merchants opposed to the longer street closure say the loss of on-street parking and pass-through traffic will be detrimental to business.
“Ten days is ridiculous for any kind of festival to shut down a commercial district,” said LeeAnne Swor, owner of L. Boutique, off Pineapple Avenue, which is one of the streets that will be closed for the festival. “I support a weekend chalk festival. It is a great three-day event, not a 10-day event.”
Swor said her business district already took a big hit when Pineapple Avenue was closed twice in the past year for construction projects, including a seven-month road closure for construction of a roundabout.
“Pineapple Avenue is the lifeline from downtown to Burns Square, and closing that is huge,” Swor said.
During Monday’s meeting, commissioners heard from Swor and four other storeowners who said that street closure was too much, and it would keep regular customers from being able to get to their shops and park.
Heidi McCollough, property manager at 602-612 Pineapple Ave., said chalk festival organizers did not approach her about plans to close the street for 10 days.
“To be honest, it is a good festival, but 10 days is too much,” McCollough said.
Although commissioners did not vote on whether to change the number of days the street would be closed, there was some confusion about whether the festival already had its street-closure permit yet. City staff told commissioners that they were working with organizers on the permitting process, and that a street closure permit had not yet been permitted.
After hearing the concerns of merchants, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked organizers of the chalk festival, “How many folks on ground zero have said they have an issue with this?”
Denise Kowal, founder of the chalk festival, said organizers had tried to approach every stakeholder in Burns Square and show them plans of the different streets that will be closed during different phases of the event. A stretch of Pineapple Avenue, from the intersection of Pineapple and Dolphin avenues to Pineapple Avenue and Selby Lane, will be closed the first few days of the festival to allow 3-D artists to work on their pieces. Additional streets in the area will be closed from Friday, Nov. 2, through the weekend, when the most festival-goers are expected.
The goal, Kowal said, was to try to alleviate the concerns of local businesses, while planning a noteworthy international art festival.
“We have followed a strict process that the city has set” in the process of applying for a 10-day street closure, Kowal said.
The owner of Burns Court Café said the festival gave a jolt to her business last year.
“For us, it’s very good,” said Cynthia Cassinelli, co-owner of the café. “We were packed. All the artists would get tired and come get a big mug of coffee.”
Despite the spike in business and the fact that the festival puts “Sarasota on the map,” Cassinelli still worries that the festival prevents her locals, many of whom are artists themselves, from getting to her café because of the street closures and lack of parking.
Last year the festival brought more than 200,000 event-goers to the quaint district of shops and cafes just blocks from Main Street.
This year’s chalk festival will feature the 100-foot interactive 3-D work by Kurt Wenner, a renowned pavement artist. Wenner is one of 500 artists participating including 50 international artists and 300 local artists.
“Kurt Wenner is the innovator of 3-D pavement art, and he is going to do a piece that is going to incorporate multiple layers,” Kowal said.
Kowal said Wenner’s main inspiration will be a circus theme, to match this year’s chalk festival theme of “Circus City: USA.” The festival will run from Oct. 28 to Nov. 6, with the main festivities happening from Nov. 1 to Nov. 5. It is free to attend.
“We are creating an amazing performance-art event, not just another chalk festival,” Kowal said.
IF YOU GO
Fifth annual Sarasota Chalk Festival
When: Oct. 28 to Nov. 6
Where: Burns Square, in the area near Orange Avenue and Pineapple Avenue
How many artists: 500
International artists: 50
Attendance: Last year 200,000 event-goers attended the free festival, including 5,000 children.