A majority of downtown merchants said Thunder by the Bay either hurt or didn’t impact their business, but the event organizer wants the city to consider the broader effects.
As the organizers of Thunder by the Bay work to rally support for the continued survival of the motorcycle festival in its current location, a survey of downtown merchants paints a dreary picture of the event’s impact on business.
This year, the city of Sarasota is conducting a thorough examination of how Thunder by the Bay went, as the event drew criticism from some businesses and officials.
As part of that effort, Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub conducted a survey of 104 stores and restaurants impacted by street closures during the weekend. Gollub said the response he received was largely negative.
“The responses indicated that Thunder by the Bay was financially beneficial for 15 businesses,” Gollub said. “For 89 businesses, it was not good. For many, it was a disaster.”
"For 89 businesses, it was not good. For many, it was a disaster." — Norm Gollub
Merchants detailed issues with street closures, competing vendors, the clientele drawn to the festival and the overall number of special events during tourist season. Gollub said the timing was a particularly crucial factor for why some merchants expressed displeasure with Thunder by the Bay.
“The shopkeepers have only so many weeks in season to make 70 or more percent of their yearly income,” Gollub said. “Every time there’s a significant closure — whether it’s for a special event or a construction project — it impacts businesses.”
Lucy Nicandri, the event organizer and executive director of Suncoast Charities for Children, said a third-party study of the event’s economic impact would be ready sometime this week. As city staff weighs potentially revising its special event policies, she’s attempting to rally support to demonstrate there’s a significant interest in keeping the event alive downtown.
In making an appeal to city officials, Nicandri wants to stress the broader impact of the event. A report following the 2015 event said the festival, with about 90,000 attendees, had an estimated economic impact of more than $8 million in Sarasota County.
"I think we need to look at the residual value and look at the impact for the overall county area." — Lucy Nicandri
Beyond the downtown core, she believes other businesses see a benefit from Thunder by the Bay. And even if businesses take a short-term hit, she thinks there’s a long-term value — that the event brings people back to downtown Sarasota who wouldn’t otherwise visit.
“These are people that are spending millions of dollars to come into the area, book hotels for the week and come back after the event is over,” Nicandri said. “I think we need to look at the residual value — and look at the impact for the overall county area.”
Anecdotally, Gollub said, business owners don’t necessarily believe that they’re deriving a long-term benefit thanks to Thunder by the Bay.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘It didn’t help them out right away, but people will come back,’” Gollub said. “What I hear from merchants is that these (festival-goers) are not the type of customers that frequent their business.”
Gollub said it’s up to city leaders to determine the future of Thunder by the Bay in a downtown setting. When it comes to the specific question of how the event impacts business in the surrounding area, however, he believes the survey has shown a strong answer.
“Thunder by the Bay certainly has benefits,” Gollub said. “But in terms of the downtown district, it financially is not good.”
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