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Village debates closing street for festival

St. Paris village council members are debating whether to shut down a portion of South Springfield Street for an annual festival this fall after several business owners raised concerns that ranged from lost revenue to access for elderly or disabled residents.

The Pony Wagon Days Festival, an event that celebrates the village’s history as a carriage manufacturer, has been held for more than 30 years, said Jason Hoelscher, president of the Pony Wagon Days committee. This year, the festival is scheduled for Sept. 5, 6 and 7.

In the past, the village shut down about one block of South Springfield Street and a portion of Plum Street for the festival, which includes a parade, entertainment, vendors and several other activities. The street previously has been closed from Wednesday afternoon to Sunday morning.

However, several businesses along that area of the village have raised concerns about closing the street this year, ranging from fewer customers due to the closed street to poor access for disabled and elderly customers during the festival. A handful of business owners said while the festival itself is a benefit to the village, the location creates problems.

Some business owners along Springfield Street have reported business declining between 17 and 60 percent during the three days the street was closed, said Fred Evans, owner of Tri-County Insurance Services. In addition, other business owners have reported issues such as theft and vandalism during the event.

As many as 15 businesses have signed a petition to keep Springfield Street open for Pony Wagon Days.

“We’re hurting the new businesses and our young people that are trying to start new businesses,” Evans said.

Jim Cole, who owns St. Paris Laundry, said he closes his business every year for the duration of the festival. Cole also raised concerns that firefighters wouldn’t be able to access the business district if a fire occurred while the street was closed. Many businesses downtown are close together.

“Should that happen in any building, the way buildings are built, you’d lose the whole town,” Cole said.

Kurt Roach, who owns C and R Pharmacy locations in St. Paris and West Liberty, said the festival is a good thing for the village. However, he said closing the street can make it difficult for some disabled and elderly residents to get to the pharmacy.

Cole and Evans said they don’t want to do away with the festival, but would like it moved to another location, such as Harmon Park or the Railroad Depot Museum.

This is the first time businesses have raised concerns about closing the street, Hoelscher said.

“I know there have been concerns in the past but not to this level,” Hoelscher said.

He added the Pony Wagon committee is willing to work with business owners, and has offered to close the street later in the day Wednesday as opposed to the afternoon. He also noted other businesses in the village have been supportive of the festival, and see it as an open house to show off their business to potential new customers.

Ideally, the businesses and committee can come to an agreement, Hoeslcher said.

Village council members had planned to make a decision on whether to close the street earlier this month, but tabled the discussion to gather more information, Mayor Brenda Cook said. Instead, they will likely vote on the issue at their meeting Monday.

She said she has heard from both businesses that support and oppose the street being closed.

“I feel like we’ve been talking about this a long time,” Cook said.

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