News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 23, 2014

Downtown blues fest future at a crossroads

Property owner threatens to seek injunction if Blues at the Crossroads restricts access to public streets, sidewalks

TERRE HAUTE — A downtown music festival, whose very name invokes the crossroads, finds itself in the crosshairs of controversy.

The 2014 Blues at the Crossroads, still more than seven months away, is expected to be an agenda item before the Terre Haute Board of Public Works and Safety on Monday. Board members likely will discuss closing streets and sidewalks again for the event, staged annually in September.

Terre Haute attorney Mike Ellis, who owns several downtown businesses, has objected in years past to the festival’s practice of charging admission for those entering the festival perimeter on public sidewalks. Ellis contends that public property — the sidewalks — are being handed over to a private entity that is restricting public access except with payment of a fee.

In 2012, the Board of Works, a five-member body appointed by the mayor, wrestled with the best way to handle the matter of closing public streets, which is one of its areas of authority. The board adopted guidelines in March 2012, stating that businesses and residences affected by any temporary street closures should remain accessible to the public. A month later, the board clarified its view regarding the Blues Festival, stating that anyone desiring only access to a business within the festival perimeter should be free to reach that business without paying the festival fee.

Ellis told the Tribune-Star in a phone interview Thursday that the festival has failed to meet that stipulation. He also threatened to file an injunction against the festival if the Board of Works gives the identical approval to the festival that it gave last year.

“I oppose closing the sidewalks, not the streets,” Ellis said. “If the city plans on allowing [festival organizer Connie Wrin] to do exactly what she did last year, I will file an injunction.”

Wrin, who has organized the festival for the past 13 years, told the newspaper that she recently circulated a letter among downtown business owners, who gave unanimous support for the event, scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13. That didn’t include Ellis, whose businesses are just outside the perimeter of the festival grounds, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of community support,” Wrin said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I think it’s good for Terre Haute.” All businesses inside the festival perimeter expressed support for the event, which draws thousands of people downtown and makes big contributions to charities, she said.

Wrin admits there were some problems during one festival with port-a-potties in an alley blocking vehicle access to Center City, an apartment and commercial property owned by Ellis. That was resolved “immediately,” she said.

Ellis maintains that last year, the festival made entry difficult — but not impossible — to another of his businesses on Wabash Avenue, an assertion supported by Mayor Duke Bennett, who said he moved some fencing only to have it replaced later in the evening. Ellis also claims a festival truck was parked directly in front of his downtown jewelry business.

Still, Bennett said he believes the festival is a plus for the city and wants to see it continue with some sort of agreement among all the parties involved.

“We’ve just got to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Bennett said. New stipulations for the festival may be in order this year, he said.

Two Board of Works members who spoke with the Tribune-Star on Thursday voiced support for the festival.

Bob Murray, board president, said he expects the festival to be approved, an opinion echoed by fellow member and vice president Jon Stinson.

“I think [Wrin has] done what she was asked by us to do,” Stinson said. Wrin has provided documentation showing guidelines for training admissions staff to allow entry to those desiring simply to visit businesses within the festival area, but not to attend the festival, he said.

The festival brings activity and business to the downtown, Stinson added. “It does what you’d hope a festival would do,” he said.

Still, Ellis believes he stands on strong legal ground in questioning the festival’s use of public sidewalks for a private event that involves charging admission.

“It is never a good idea to charge pedestrians a cover charge to window shop, and that’s exactly what is being done,” Ellis said in an eight-page letter to the Board of Works dated Oct. 23, 2013, and obtained  through a public records request by the Tribune-Star to the city legal department.

Wrin said she is hoping the matter can be resolved quietly at Monday’s board meeting in City Hall. In 2012, more than a dozen people attended a Board of Works meeting to show their support for the Blues festival. If it appears the matter will not be resolved quietly, she may ask for similar support this year, she said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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