For years, the Town of Pelham has maintained that the July party brings in millions of dollars; the economic model used is flawed, but it’s the only data there is
BY JOHN CHICK
Special to the VOICE
From an outside perspective, Pelham Summerfest appears to be as polarizing in some quarters as the (soon to be resurrected) arches that have physically centered the event. Residents seem either to love it or hate it. So, with another edition of Summerfest firing up this Thursday in downtown Fonthill, the Voice takes a look at the theoretical benefits— financial and otherwise —to the Town.
Not surprisingly, answers vary depending on who is asked.
According to the Town’s official 2018 Summerfest report, last year’s event created an economic impact of just over $3 million dollars. With a reported three-day attendance of just under 40,000 Fest-goers, that averages out to $78 spent per person. Here’s where the numbers first get fuzzy.
While the Town obtains a relatively hard number of attendees from their security contractor—though some attendees tell the Voice they were counted repeatedly, whenever exiting and returning through cordons—knowing the exact dollar amount these attendees spend is less precise.
Responding to a Voice survey in December 2016, nearly 250 readers said that they spent far less at that year’s Summerfest. Some 45% said they spent under $40, and 30% said they spent not a nickel. Some 66% said that their purchases were limited to food and beverage only. The remainder said they spent nothing, on anything.
According to the Town’s 2018 report, 289 self-selected, on-site surveys were received last year, compiled alongside information taken from giveaway ballots and a post-event online survey.
Ultimately, this information represented a large part of the economic impact data presented in the report—which is aligned with the Government of Ontario’s Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model (TREIM), the matrix used to calculate the $3 million-plus economic benefit.
“What is important is the data you are starting with,” says Marion Joppe, a professor at the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph.
Joppe says that this information can’t be obtained unless there is a valid way of counting “visitors”—that is, Summerfest goers who do not live in Pelham.
Then “incremental spending” related to the festival must be isolated, and visitor spending surveyed, usually by random (not self-selected) sample. The impact calculation follows automatically.
“But if what you’re putting in is garbage,” says Joppe, “well, then so will be the output.”
There’s no evidence to suggest that the Town is inputting garbage, but because a major component of the TREIM model is based on accommodations and overnight stays — something not really applicable in Pelham, with minimal lodgings and a backlash brewing against short-term rentals — that aspect is not counted.
Ward 2 Councillor and Summerfest Chair John Wink is the first to admit this, but adds the financial impact to Pelham is still a net positive.
“This is the only measurement we have for economic impact,” Wink said of the TREIM model. “If I were to poke a hole in this model, it allows for overnight stays and accommodations for Summerfest that are more or less irrelevant. But even if you were to discount the model estimate by two-thirds there would still be an economic impact in excess of a million dollars.”
In short, the TREIM model is a gussied-up guesstimate.
“It’s not scientific, but the assumptions they make are working assumptions,” said Brock University economic professor and St. Catharines City Councillor Joseph Kushner.
“When you look at the economic impact, a lot of the multipliers are somewhat overstated. There tends to be redistribution of consumer dollars from one sector to the other. But I imagine a festival like that brings in people from the outside, and if it brings in people from the outside then the economic impact is that much greater.”
While the vast majority may not be overnight visitors, Summerfest does attract outsiders. According to Town data, some 50 percent of attendees came from outside Pelham—either from elsewhere in Niagara or points beyond—over the last three years.
This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Pelham is being exposed to people who may come back to do business. On the other, there are concerns that outsiders could have less respect for the community.
However, the fear of drunken hooligans rampaging through town hasn’t really materialized yet— even if some attendees leave a mess, and tend to get louder the later the hour.
“Beer bottles,” answered Joe Fournier, when asked if he’s had to clean anything up after Summerfest. Fournier operates his namesake martial arts studio in a wing of the Fonthill Baptist Church at the centre of the action.
“Quite often people are bringing their own bottles because you can’t buy beer bottles [at Summerfest]. So in that case it looks like an excuse for people to come down and drink.”
Being in the physical combat training business also doesn’t necessarily bode well in terms of making money during a street festival.
“The only disappointing part is I have classes on Saturday, usually when my parking lot is full. People totally disregard the signs that say parking is only for my clients and the church.”
But if there’s one downtown business owner who says he gets no benefit from Summerfest, it’s Paul Hammond of Wheel Class, a car and motorcycle accessories retailer just south of Church Hill on Pelham Street.
“The first year I did it, kids would come in and grab some high-price product, drop it and bounce it off the racks,” Hammond said. “So the last three years, when it opens, I close the doors and come back when it’s over.”
Hammond used to be a member of the Pelham Business Association, and was actually involved in the conception of Summerfest after major road reconstruction affected area businesses almost a decade ago. Within a few years, he was starting a petition to get the festival moved off Pelham Street. That didn’t work.
“A couple of years ago I used to get really wound-up about it, but now I just close up and take the days off,” he said. “I’d rather not be here and see what goes on.”
And therein lies the sharpest double-edged sword. Businesses that provide non-hospitality services aren’t likely to see an uptick in customers during a street party like Summerfest. In Hammond’s case, he ends up losing business.
Across the street at Gelato Village, however, things predictably boom during the event.
“We see a sweet spot,” says employee Crystal Davidson, who adds that it helps they have a patio to serve their Italian treats on. “It definitely makes a difference with the end-of- the-year bottom-line.”
At the same time, Davidson does sympathize with Hammond.
“More people benefit than lose from it, but I do feel bad for his particular circumstance.”
Other businesses that have expressed frustration to the Voice in previous years—often over lack of access or parking for their customers—declined to speak on the record. Following the 2016 Summerfest, after one business threatened to go to the Voice with their complaint, the Town agreed to pay to repair damage caused to the business premises during the event.
Walk-up sales aside, John Wink points to the fact that 58 vendors paid the Town for the right to set up shop during last year’s Summerfest, exactly half of them from Pelham. He adds that the Summerfest Committee has given back $58,000 to local service clubs since the inception of the event, and are on their way to paying for the restoration of the arches themselves, along with a reserve maintenance fund.
“You may recall that the Niagara Food Festival had to fold because they were $80,000 in debt,” Wink said of the now-defunct Welland event. “We ensure that this will not be the case for Summerfest.”
In the end, the annual event has its supporters and its detractors. Some benefit from it, and some don’t. Despite his parking lot complaints, Fournier isn’t totally against the idea.
“You’re never going to please everyone all the time,” he said.
With additional reporting by Dave Burket.
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