FISU festival fizzle?
Main Street businesses saw little foot traffic midweek during games with road closure
LAKE PLACID — The usual sound of people talking, laughing and shopping along Lake Placid’s Main Street was replaced with the sound of music echoing throughout the otherwise quiet business district on Thursday, Jan. 19, one week after the 11-day FISU Winter World University Games began.
Despite a reported spike in pedestrian traffic the previous weekend — the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend — store and restaurant owners on Lake Placid’s Main Street were reporting an unusual overall low in customer traffic and sales on weekdays since the road’s closure on Jan. 12. Although many businesses owners say they weren’t seeing the boon in business they expected during the games, many remain optimistic that the state’s more than $550 million investment in local winter sports venues — along with the revitalization of Main Street’s infrastructure — will bring more business to their stores in the long run.
Over the first week of the games, with less foot traffic than they’ve seen in some time, a few Main Street store owners and their employees were seen giving their shops a deep clean and performing inventory. Main Street wait staff were seen sitting at tables in mostly empty restaurants, waiting for customers to walk through the door.
While a recent warm snap may have been keeping some regular tourist traffic away from this winter recreation hub, many business owners and employees said that they didn’t experience the traffic they’d normally get during the MLK holiday weekend — or even during a regular winter weekend in January.
“I’ve worked here for eight years. It’s never been like this. Never,” Brionna Wilke, a server at the Black Bear Restaurant, said on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
Servers make most of their money from tips, and Wilke lives in Burke — about an hour and a half away from Lake Placid. She said there have been some days during the games that it’s not worth coming to work, like on Thursday, Jan. 12 — the day of the opening ceremony for the games. Black Bear’s management called her and told her not to come into work for her regularly scheduled shift. They hadn’t had a single customer all day. At around 3 p.m. on Jan. 18, as Wilke sat at a table in the restaurant, she said she’d only had three tables since the restaurant opened at 11 a.m.
Marc Galvin, as the co-owner of The Bookstore Plus and the president of the Lake Placid Business Association, kept his ear tuned to the state of business on Main Street during the games. When asked what he’d been hearing from store owners, he said that “everybody wants to open the street back up.”
The sharp halt in business comes after a bustling holiday season. The owners of the new Peaks Paint Bar and the Curious Otter wildlife gallery reported sold-out events and an explosion in sales and shoppers during the holiday season at the end of December and beginning of January.
Galvin, who’s also a Lake Placid village trustee, met with Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism officials on Saturday, Jan. 14 to try to address the concerns of local business owners and brainstorm ways to generate more pedestrian traffic on Main Street. He believed the lack of business on Main Street was a combined effect of the Main Street closure and the lack of nearby parking for the general public.
The upper NBT lot — which has about 120 parking spots — was the only parking lot open on Main Street at the start of the games, and it was only open to Main Street residents, business owners and employees who had a special parking pass. As a result of Galvin’s meeting with ROOST, free public parking was added in the upper lot of the High Peaks Resort along with weekend parking at Lake Placid Family Dental, both located at the northern end of the street on Saranac Avenue.
Several business owners on Main Street extended their hours and increased their staffing and inventory ahead of the games with the expectation that the sporting events and accompanying Main Street festival would overwhelm their usual crews, but many said they’ve largely been left without customers to serve.
“We were all told how the games were going to have such a positive economic impact to the area, yet it appears to be a complete failure economic-wise,” said Ralph Rimualdo, the owner of Beef Jerky Experience. “From talking with other owners, I’m being told all our sales are down from last year without the games.”
Rimualdo said he ordered extra stock for his store ahead of the games, but sales didn’t warrant the extra inventory — he said his store made one sale on Jan. 18.
The Bookstore Plus extended its closing hours from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the games, but even when pedestrian traffic ramped up on Main Street during the evenings, Galvin said there wasn’t much traffic inside the stores at night.
“There’s people out walking around, but they’re not really shopping or dining,” he said. “They’re out enjoying the s’mores or checking out the medals ceremonies.”
Business owners started seeing slow traffic and low sales in the days leading up to the start of the games last week, though many business owners reported increased foot traffic — and business — during activities for the games’ festival on Main Street the first weekend. Though they say Main Street was largely vacant on weekdays since Main Street closed on Jan. 12, most remained hopeful that the second weekend would bring more sales.
“I’m looking at it as a build,” Rich Karaz, the co-owner of the Curious Otter, said of business during the games.
Village Mayor Art Devlin said he felt that while the Main Street closure might be hard on businesses in the short-term — especially after the coronavirus pandemic and two years of construction on Main Street impacted business — he hoped business owners could think about the long-term benefit local upgrades could have on business.
Devlin and Galvin both mentioned upcoming world-class competitions, which are expected to bring large groups to the area, as trade-offs for current discomforts in business. Without upgrades to local venues, both said, these competitions wouldn’t have been slated to come to the area.
“Hopefully everyone’s looking at the long term,” Devlin said.
And most business owners are. Rory Lustberg, the owner of both Wyatt’s and Eleanor’s Pasta Kitchen in the Alpine Mall on Main Street, was part of the nearly unanimous perspective from business owners on Main Street interviewed by the News who felt that this event is only temporary, while the upgrades to local winter sports venues and Main Street have the potential to provide a positive effect on business that’s lasting.
Galvin and his wife Sarah, who’s also his business partner at the bookstore, see the closure during the games as a learning opportunity.
Closing Main Street for an art festival or other events has been floated in the past, Marc said, but he believed the first week of the games proved that future closures on Main Street likely wouldn’t go over well, either.
“I think this really shows what a negative effect that can have on businesses,” he said.
Lake Placid business owners like Lustberg are also hoping the closure will be a learning experience for games organizers and local officials. Lustberg said that before the games started, there was no way to be certain that the promise of a business boost would be fulfilled.
“We had all hopes and some vague expectations, but at the end of the day, everyone was left wondering what it was going to look like. You know, only time was going to tell,” he said. “Now we know.”