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Setup of midway blocks off festival traffic to Main Street stores, owners say

Some Main Street business owners said Thursday that the configuration of the Corn Palace Festival carnival is blocking access to their stores, but carnival officials said little can be done about it this year.

Some Main Street business owners said Thursday that the configuration of the Corn Palace Festival carnival is blocking access to their stores, but carnival officials said little can be done about it this year.

The two sides met Thursday morning to discuss the issue over coffee at Betty's Café on southern Main. By what seemed like a unanimous agreement, they decided to live with the problem this year and take corrective actions next year.

Mike Featherston, of Minnesota-based GoldStar Amusements, said he knew about the business owners' concerns when he arrived in town and thought he had addressed them by leaving strategic gaps between carnival games. After hearing the business owners' complaints Thursday, he admitted that his plan had failed.

"I'll make sure it doesn't happen next year," Featherston said, "if you hire me back."

The problem, the business owners said, is the face-to-face configuration of the carnival games. Because of that setup, foot traffic flows down the center of the street. If the games were back-to-back, the business owners said, foot traffic would flow down the sidewalks and give the businesses more exposure.

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The problem is especially bad on the west side of the 200 block of Main, where the backs of the carnival trailers form a virtual wall that conceals several businesses. Jim Johnston, of Harve's Sport Shop at 213 N. Main, said the setup is "like a curtain" in front of his store. Lee and Renee Michael, of Michael's Toggery and JCW Young Outfitters at 211 N. Main, said the view from their store is so restricted they had to walk around the trailers to see if anybody was attending the carnival Wednesday evening.

Cindy Gregg, of Prairie Breeze Gallery at 215 N. Main., said some business owners extended their hours and spent extra money on advertising for the festival week but now feel those efforts are being wasted.

"We don't expect increased sales," Gregg said. "What we want is exposure, and we're just not getting it."

Featherston said he could not put the games back-to-back. If he did, he said, at least five of the games would have to be removed.

Removing the games would leave seven or eight employees without work, Featherston said, and negatively affect the financial viability of the carnival. To make money, he said, he has to lure customers back for repeat visits during the festival. And to get customers to come back, Featherston said, he has to pack a lot of attractions into the 55-foot-wide span of Main Street.

Some business owners suggested spreading the carnival over a longer area of Main, but Featherston said that would exacerbate problems already caused by the excessive length of the current setup between First Avenue and Fifth Avenue. The problems include the limited reach of electrical hookups and generators, the logistical challenges of having carnival staff stretched up and down a five-block area, the long walks faced by carnival customers and the required inclusion of 10-foot-wide fire lanes in many areas.

"We need width," Featherston said.

For this year, Featherston agreed to take another look at the layout and see what he could do. He said he could possibly remove one game to provide better access to some of the affected businesses.

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For future carnivals, several options were discussed. Business owners suggested placing some games on the vacant former State Theatre lot, now owned by a local church, to ease some of the congestion on Main and allow better access to storefronts. Featherston said he was agreeable to the idea, as long as a ride could be placed at the rear of the vacant lot to draw foot traffic through the game booths.

Other parking lots on Main also were suggested and discussed as possible game or ride sites. Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling suggested alternating the location of the fire lanes from one side of the street to the other from year to year. Schilling said people are more apt to walk on the side of the street where the fire lanes are, so alternating the location of the fire lanes could spread out the benefits of the foot traffic more equitably among the businesses.

About 20 people attended the meeting, including three carnival officials, four City Council members, one member of the Corn Palace Festival Board and numerous downtown businesspeople.

Several businesspeople said that despite their concerns with the layout of the carnival, they were happy to have it downtown and happy to have GoldStar Amusements back after the city's disastrous one-year pairing with Todd Armstrong Shows.

Last year, eight Armstrong workers were arrested for various crimes during the festival, and carnival customers complained that many of Armstrong's rides malfunctioned or appeared unsafe. GoldStar had been the festival's carnival provider for the previous six years.

In coming back to the Corn Palace Festival this year, Featherston said he hoped the carnival location would be moved to provide a wider area for his attractions. The Corn Palace Festival Board voted earlier this year to honor that request and move the carnival farther north up Main Street, where Featherston could utilize the parking lot of the former Econofoods building. But the board's decision was overruled by the City Council after dozens of southern-Main business owners said they wanted the carnival to remain in its traditional location.

The Corn Palace Festival began Wednesday and will continue through Sunday.

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