Kevin Hoover: Let’s Give Arcata Main Street’s New OysterFest Plan A Chance

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Arcata Main Street is taking a risky and necessary step with its plan to enclose and charge admission to the Oyster Festival on the Plaza. In doing so, it is adapting the event to modern times and placing it on a firm footing for the future.

If you can’t pony up the admission fee, there’s always Bebop and Brew, Lumberjack Days or Hempfest. Just kidding – those events didn’t evolve, and as you may have noticed, are no longer with us.

Main Street’s imperfect but flexible approach is a bold effort to manage the fest’s burgeoning popularity – a crowd that has swelled over the past several years to be nearly the equal of the entire population of Arcata. That many people crammed on the Plaza, with alcohol in the mix, has brought a whole host of public safety concerns, both traditional and modern.

I remember waiting in an A&MRTS bus at the stop sign at Union Street and Samoa Boulevard in the mid-1980s. We were stuck waiting for a break in traffic, and someone said the intersection needed a traffic light. The bus driver said, “No, they’ll wait until someone gets killed, then fix it.”

That’s just what happened. A few years later, teen skateboarder Vic Ferro, Jr. was struck by a car and killed just feet away from where the bus had been stalled. He was run down on the crummy, vestigial roadside that pedestrians had to traverse on the 1960s-vintage road.

Subsequently, the City secured funding to totally overhaul Samoa Boulevard from the freeway to Sunny Brae with deluxe vehicle, bike and pedestrian lanes – and a roundabout at Union Street, all landscaped.

Given the destruction and occasional violence during recent Halloween and New Year’s Eves on the Plaza, should the Oyster Festival’s sponsor just let the event drift, waiting for someone to be hurt to update a crowd management approach that dates back decades?

If criticism of this plan has been withering, imagine the furor that would ensue were someone to get hurt at the event. “You should have seen this coming and done something before things got out of hand…”

Much of the criticism of Main Street’s plan is based on incorrect assumptions and simple bad math, though some of the blowback is justified and somewhat self-inflicted. Criticism has centered on several points: the cost of admission, the propriety of privatizing the Plaza, impacts on area businesses and discrimination.


Yes, you’ll be getting dinged at the door this time. But how badly? It’s been said that the admission plan most hurts families.

Let’s a take a family with two adult parents, a teenager and a child. It will cost them $25 to get into the OysterFest. (Adults $10; teens $5, 12 and under free.)

If the parents drink beer, they’ll receive free wrist bands, which used to cost $3. Then their total admission cost is effectively just $19.

If that same family had gone to the movies at the Minor Theatre the night before, they would have paid $33.50 for a much shorter experience. (Adults/teens $9; 12 and under $6.50.)

When they go to a Humboldt Crabs game, they’ll pay $26. (Adults $8; seniors and students $6; 12 and under $4.)

If they go to HealthSPORT’s Zumbathon at the Community Center this weekend, they’ll pay $40 ($10 admission).

The point is, $25 isn’t loose change. But it buys a family of four a day’s worth of relaxation on the Plaza. And comparatively, that’s one of the best deals around.

The average cost for each of those for family members is $6.25 (or $4.75 each if the parents get beer bands) – about the cost of three oysters. How much of a dent will that ding at the door, that pinch at the palisade, that gouge at the gate really put in our family unit’s Oyster Fest budget?

In 2004, Jessica Digiambattista, Steven Hackett and Margaret Gainer of the Humboldt State Department of Economics surveyed 395 Oyster Fest attendees. A that time, attendance was estimated at 14,000. (It has since grown by at least 2,000.)

The resulting report, titled A Study of the Income Injected into the Arcata Economy by Visitors to the Arcata Oyster Festival 2004, gave estimates of how much attendees spend per capita the day of the event, including shops, restaurants, vendors and any lodging.

OysterFest Spending              Family of 4      Entry Fee      W/beer bands 

Arcata residents: $34.52                 $138.08           18%                13%

Other Humboldters: $42.73            $170.92             14%              11%

All non-Arcatans: $55.97                $223.88            11%               8%

As seen above, the admission price is a small, if not insignificant, percentage of the day’s OysterFest spending. Basically a surcharge that is equal to a little more than three oysters or one cup of beer per person.

Even if they were determined to spend no more than they did in 2004, an Arcata family would still have $113.08 left over for oysters. If they get beer bands, they have $119.08 to spend on oysters that cost three for $5 and cups of beer that costs $6.

This oyster-lovin’ family could devour 46 oysters  and six beers and still not break the budget. With live music by their choice of three live bands at no extra charge.


Another objection is that Main Street oughtn’t be able to charge admission to a public park like the Plaza.

Public facilities, including the Plaza, Community Center, even parts of City Hall, are rentable. There’s a process, an encroachment or use of facilities permit, insurance and a fee. Part of the requirements are that the applicant provide for public safety and set reasonable rules for attendees. That’s why the Farmers’ Market can – and must, according to state law – ban dogs.

Main Street will be responsible for the Plaza and the people on it during the Oyster Festival. Hence the same kind of admission requirement one would expect at another Arcata park just a block away – the Arcata Ball Park. Or the Community Center or D Street Neighborhood Center.

A dilemma for businesses

Plaza businesses are in unknown territory with this new concept, and face an agonizing decision based on unknowable variables. Their dilemma: do they choose to be enclosed within the festival and accessible only to attendees, or on the other side of the fence and open to the public but blocked to festival goers?

There are up and down sides to each situation. The fact is, no one knows what will happen. That being the case, the businesses should consider marketing that day that compliments or counter-programs, but somehow capitalizes on the potential opportunity the fest and its fence present.

Some Plaza-area businesses have complained about drunks and people with drippy food entering their premises and making messes, soiling merchandise and worse. It’s reasonable to suggest that the stores on the outside of the fence will experience fewer drunk people and food slobs. It’s also fair to assume that with an admission threshold, there will be fewer drunks inside the event, so the stores open to it may not have a better-behaved clientele, and fewer problems.


This is the most cutting of the accusations – that Main Street hopes to lock out the poor, or the hippies or some other underclass group.

The mistake these critics are making is that the fact that people’s economic or cultural status has never been a problem on the Plaza. All kinds of people get along very well on the Plaza every day. Part of the fun of the place is that there is usually someone or something interesting to behold.

That is, until someone – anyone – goes off the rails, which sometimes happens, and only more so at events offering beer.

It’s behavior – what people do that has created public safety issues. And in case you haven’t been reading the papers, here’s a hot flash: people of any social class can and do go awry, especially when alcohol is involved.

Would it make any difference to you whether the obnoxious drunk swearing or fighting in front of your children was a beatnik, a banker, a cowboy, college student or, for that matter, a newspaper editor? No, it wouldn’t.

By the same token, would you really care if a person sitting and peaceably enjoying a pleasant OysterFest afternoon a few feet away from you was any of those kinds of people? No, you wouldn’t. Well, maybe if it was the newspaper guy.

The OysterFest admission fee applies to all races, colors, creeds and lifestyles. It’s not about who, but what they do. Or won’t do – no longer will drunks be able to just wander in, throw up and pass out next to someone’s kid, with their dog running through your picnic.

In return for the small admission fee, attendees can reasonably expect a safer and more pleasant experience on the Plaza grass.

Main Street can do better

Some of the misunderstanding here can be laid at Main Street’s doorstep. The organization doesn’t publicize its meetings or communicate very well with either its members or the public.

Its deliberations seem chaotic. Sometimes Main Street members, boardmembers, staff and guests (including City Councilmembers) show up here in Jacoby’s Storehouse for the organization’s monthly meeting, only to find that key staff or officers aren’t to be found. They mill around in the hallway, or kill time in our office, then give up and leave. This has happened several times, sometimes two weeks in a row.

When the organization does have its unnoticed meetings, they are in a closed, unmarked conference room. You could know about it and attend if you really tried, but what’s missing is inclusive outreach.

And even that outreach is not so well done. Main Street’s infrequent press releases are crude in execution, loaded with awkward typos. They don’t reflect well on the organization or inspire confidence in its grander plans.

A lot of people and businesses weren’t included in the planning were taken by surprise and even now, haven’t now the memo on the OysterFest plan. They still don’t know why the plan has been proposed or how it works.

Sunday, I heard two members of the Humboldt Crabs organization criticize the admission plan on two grounds: First, that they didn’t know why it was being proposed. That’s a common logical fallacy – the argument from ignorance – which says, basically, “I don’t understand it, so it isn’t good.”

Their other reason was that an entrance fee shouldn’t be charged on the Plaza, a public park. This criticism was leveled from inside an enclosed public park, the Arcata Ball Park, at an event for which an entrance fee had been charged. And a higher one than will be charged at the OysterFest. Both are worth every penny.

Those in the dark about the plan could have availed themselves of the readily available information about the entrance fee/fencing which has been on our website for weeks – news stories and Main Street’s lengthy FAQ. Maybe they don’t consider the newspaper or the downtown business organization relevant sources of information any more. In that sense, perhaps we and Main Street are both obsolescent institutions.

Downtown businesses don’t take advantage of Main Street as they should. Back when H Street was being overhauled, there was an open Main Street meeting at Mazzotti’s to discuss related issues and impacts on business. Few to no downtown business people attended, choosing not to utilize the downtown business advocacy group to fight for their issues. They preferred to lambaste the City on Facebook with sarcastic complaints about the construction-related problems. (Even Facebook alerts didn’t draw them to the meeting.)

That may be because the biz folk didn’t have any confidence in Main Street’s leadership. This initiative could help change that.

Give it a chance

Main Street has a couple of fights on its hands – to make the Oyster Fest plan work, to win over skeptics and to reassert its relevance. With the admission and Plaza enclosure plan, Main Street is showing courage and pro-active initiative.

Doing the right thing isn’t always the most popular thing. Main Street is willfully sacrificing near-term popularity for public safety and longer-term benefit. That’s leadership.

The new approach is really a five-year plan which, if successful, could get Main Street off its shaky state subsidy, reduce dependence on beer sales and perhaps even cut the vendor fee. No matter what, though, all the revenue will be reinvested in positive downtown projects and events.

A successful OysterFest will reinvigorate Main Street as an organization, raise funds for worthy causes and future events and demonstrate one new method for organizing public gatherings for the benefit of all. Let’s give this new idea the chance it deserves.

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