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Businesses perspective: FTD didn't match the hype

<i>Vera Roy-Stoeberl photo</i> Two baristas, Amanda Dodge (left) and Kelsie Flanscha, wait on customers Tuesday morning at the Dish and The Spoon Café. Overall, local shop and store owner expectations were not met by the nearby presence last week of the three-day Farm Technology Days.

Huge numbers were flashing before the arrival of Farm Technology Days July 20-22. Visitors to River Falls were predicted to range from 60,000 to 100,000. One forecast was for a $2.8-million stimulus to the local economy.

While a downpour canceled most of Day Three of FTD, a Journal survey found that many local merchants got anything from a mild boost in sales to nothing.

Reaction from Main Street merchants ranged from ho-hum to frustration.

Val Lundgren, Karma Gifts owner: "I hate to complain, but to tell you the truth, it made my business worse. Our customers stayed away."

Lundgren said she had three customers and one sale during the entire three days of FTD. Typically she would expect to see 50-100 people pass through her gift shop.

With virtually no business and spending on advertising, Lundgren says she lost money.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up, but it was disappointing," she said. "Luckily, I didn't order extra inventory."

Lundgren had two theories for what happened: 1) Either she lost regular customers because they didn't want to bother with the expected crush of downtown crowds and traffic and/or 2) Many locals went to FTD and skipped their usual trips to the downtown.

She added: "I kind of miss not having the Kansas City Chiefs here. They brought in the customers."

Abbie Testa, co-owner of the Dish and The Spoon Café: "We were busier Monday through Thursday, up a little, but not considerably so. I was unsure how we would be affected, so I wasn't disappointed."

Testa said that Dish and Spoon, right next to Karma Gifts, extended full-menu dinners with beer and wine specials to weekday evenings. She said those dinners attracted some extra business.

She estimated a nice mix of customers: About a third regulars or locals; another third FTD vendors; and another third visiting FTD tourists.

"I didn't get my hopes up for Farm Technology Days," Testa said. "But I do really believe there was more potential that was lost."

Craig Foster, owner of Foster Sports: "We just didn't see much of anything. Tuesday and Wednesday was pretty dead. We got a little burst Thursday when (FTD) shut down early and there were people here from far away who had nothing to do for the rest of the day."

Overall, Foster said FTD had no affect on his sports shop, even though hours were extended to 8 p.m.

Lara Score, Bo's 'N Mine bar manager: "It was a total and complete flop. We were so pumped for this event -- ready to show off our beautiful city, our business, our wonderful customer service, and it ended up as nothing but a big letdown. It was built up to be something amazing, and it wasn't."

Score said Bo's was overstaffed and oversupplied for what turned out to be a negligible business return.

Part of the problem, she thought, was law enforcement diverting FTD traffic away from Main Street.

"Everyone leaving (FTD) got directed toward Ellsworth and Prescott," she said. "There was so much effort put into the preparation for Farm Technology Days, the advertising was great, the chamber did such a great job, but it's a shame that as the host city we didn't get more out of this."

John Garden, operating partner for Riverview Hotel downtown, formerly Best Western: "I can't believe that nothing was done to bring in thousands of people for an event this size that was held two miles outside of River Falls. Something this big won't come around twice...There was a tractor pull in Ellsworth, buses going to the casino...but nothing from River Falls."

Garden said that, thankfully, FTD vendors booked and filled rooms at his hotel a year in advance, though there were a few last-minute cancelations. Those hotel guests also generated spillover business for Junior's Bar and Grille (same building).

"But we expected a lot more of an increase in food and beverage sales that we didn't get," Garden said.

Referring to the tens of thousands who came to FTD, Garden said: "Over 95% of them still don't know what River Falls looks like...Someone was asleep at the wheel."

Oscar White, employee at Bubba's Fried Chicken: "I worked those days, and it was just an average week for us. We had one customer from Hastings who had been to Farm Technology Days. We also had a vendor who stopped in because he heard, 'This was the best place to eat chicken in town.' But otherwise, nothing."

Kwik Trip, store manager Scott Kastel: "We did everything we could to get ramped up...extra staffing, merchandise...We wanted to be prepared...But it was not even close to what we were anticipating."

Kastel said Kwik Trip saw an early morning business jump thanks to the presence of FTD volunteers and vendors, plus several law-enforcement officers.

"We had some success at that time," he said. "We sold special orders of things like ice, bottled water, sandwiches, donuts, pop and beer.

"But of (FTD) attendees, they were practically nonexistent. The main reason was that traffic got shut down and shifted away from Main Street to Cemetery Road."

Kastel said he had to throw out extra perishable food he stocked up on, but that even with the "higher waste," FTD at least gave his store a "modest bump."

Copper Kettle owner Ted Leier: "Farm Technology Days didn't make up for not having the Chiefs here...It was almost like having the Kansas City Chiefs here for a few days instead of a few weeks. We miss all those (Chiefs) fans, their media, players and coaches who dined with us."

Leier said he'll take any business boost he can, and that FTD gave Copper Kettle a nice increase last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

On the other hand, Copper Kettle opened early, 11 a.m. instead of 4 p.m., and the extra hours didn't pay off.

"I went into this trying to be realistic," Leier said. "I didn't want to be caught shorthanded, but I knew the crowd number estimates were just hopeful numbers. Overall, we got a little boost. The nights were good, and we're thankful for those who came in."

Chamber of Commerce CEO Rosanne Bump said that River Falls gained valuable media exposure in the Twin Cities and across Wisconsin by hosting FTD, and she added: "That is good for our community in the long run."

Another plus, Bump said, were the overnight guests.

"All of the hotel rooms were booked in River Falls for several days," she said. "These stays were during the week, typically a time that hotels experience less traffic.

"In addition, overnight guests spend time in the community to have dinner, shop, fill their gas tanks and use the grocery store. All of those things are good for our local economy."

But Bump admitted there was a letdown.

"The business community was certainly hoping for a greater response to the event," she said. "Many businesses stayed open longer hours, had specials...for visitors and vendors, and were well prepared to have a lot of visitors in and around River Falls during those three days.

"For a couple of reasons that did not happen in a significant way, including that the show was closed early due to bad weather and much of the traffic was routed around River Falls.

"There are some disappointed business people in River Falls."