Taste of St. Louis Departs for Chesterfield: What Does It Mean?

Organizers of the Budweiser Taste of St. Louis festival (above) have announced that they will be moving the annual event to Chesterfield. The primary reason, according to reports by the Post-Dispatch and KMOX radio appears to be the Chesterfield amphitheater and the potential “to land big-name Food Network people”. Located in Chesterfield’s Central Park, the amphitheater has 300 fixed seats and additional terraced seating. The park’s website states it can accommodate 4,000. Organizers estimate 400,000 people attended last year’s event in downtown St. Louis.

Now entering its 10th year in the City, the event’s website says it has raised more than $200,000 in charitable donations given to Food Outreach, St. Patrick Center, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Blues Society, Benton Park Neighborhood Association and Soulard Restoration Group. There is no word as to whether the change in location will result in a change of philanthropic focus.

The quick reaction from the Twitterati (us included) was overwhelmingly negative. Taste was a favorite of many in the city. It won a St. Louis Magazine Reader’s Choice aware for best food event. For many, the downtown setting was a perfect setting. The festival has said that the Chesterfield location will invite a “more geographically diverse”. Parking was also cited as a challenge that using the Chesterfield Mall and shuttle buses will solve.

There would seem to be several problems with this reasoning. The City is the culinary center of the region. While there’s no monopoly on good food, the exciting and popular culinary efforts in St. Louis are largely in the City of St. Louis. Downtown St. Louis is easily reached by transit and parking is literally everywhere (though it is true that you may have to park in a garage). “It’s only 20 minutes from downtown,” Taste Marketing Director K. Sonderegger told KMOX of the new Chesterfield location. ”It’s very easy to get out there. Just hop on the MetroLink and the MetroBus.”

{it’s a joke, but really…}

Live in the Shaw Neighbohood and want to visit Taste festival without having to drive? Leaving your home at 10am on a Saturday, you would take the 80 bus to the Central West End MetroLink Station, take a train to the Delmar Station and then board the 91 Bus to Chesterfield Mall. That bus leg of the trip alone will take 58 minutes and include 93 stops. 93. The total one-way trip via transit is 2h 14min. And once there, you would board a shuttle to cross the road to the festival site. Needless to say, those living in the city and not wanting to drive will not attended the festival.

Does the festival care? It doesn’t seem to. The city setting? Not so important. A possible contract with the Food Network and an isolated, completely controlled ready made venue were the priorities. In the end, organizers wanted a different type of festival. Chesterfield’s Central Park is 38 acres in all. In addition to the amphitheater, the park is home to the Chesterfield Family Aquatic Center, and a YMCA.

{the Chesterfield Central Park amphitheater (circled in yellow) – home to St. Louis Bluesweek and Taste of St. Louis}

Does the City care? Beyond some of the silly explanations offered by Taste, there are interesting issues to discuss related to festivals, the city and downtown. More than at any time in the past century, downtown is a residential neighborhood. People have moved it, jobs continue to leave. Downtown is a great setting in many ways, but it’s not clear that events like Taste are a financial boon for the area. Closed streets and a crush of visitors typically isn’t good for basic retail and serving regular customers.

With seemingly ever more running events, parades, music, food, and other festivals, is it too much of a burden to place all of these downtown? Is downtown a festival site, a neighborhood, a central business district? How are these to be balanced? Of course some festivals can’t or won’t move – think Mardi Gras in Soulard or St. Patrick’s Day in Dogtown. But Pride St. Louis left South City and Tower Grove Park for downtown, the Veiled Prophet parade is relocating to Forest Park, and of course St. Louis Bluesweek just announced their move from downtown to the Chesterfield amphitheater. In that case, the Big Muddy Blues Festival remains downtown, and the move brings some kind of closure to the confusing two-blues fest calendar downtown.

So festivals are on the move. Each has its own feeling, vibe, and specific needs. Both Taste and Bluesweek are produced by Entertainment Saint Louis. In the meantime, a major new summer music festival may be heading for downtown. The proposal, called “Summer Rocks” (proposed festival site right) is connected to International Creative Management, a big time talent management group out of Los Angeles, and would be set in the area around Soldiers Memorial on the Gateway Mall (RFT story). Did Entertainment Saint Louis see the writing on the wall? Was the city about to be too full of events?

At least for Bluesweek, organizers were looking to downsize both the festival budget and attendance. Telling the Post-Dispatch that the downtown event cost $200,000 to produce, the new location will be cheaper and smaller. In 2013, it’s estimated that 55,000 to 65,000 people attended Bluesweek over three days. The 2014 event will be just two days, and the amphitheater’s capacity is 4,000. It’s good to remember that huge events like this are always expensive and very challenging to produce. As they grow, this becomes even more true. At its new home, the event will be ticketed, something that would have been difficult to do in downtown.

By any measure, Taste (and Bluesweek) was successful, and in a short amount of time. Pride was a huge event as well. In fact, big attendance numbers were one reason given for its move to downtown. In that case, a new festival call “Keep Pride in Tower Grove” has sprung up. There’s nothing inherently negative about festivals, parades, and other events finding the best location. However, the identity of a festival is often tied to its location.

What these festivals on the move have shown is that there’s a demand for such events in an urban setting, in the city. Finding the right formula to keep them there is another challenge. Can a growing LouFest remain in Forest Park? How about the St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival? When one stops to consider such things, the number of size of the festivals in St. Louis is nearly overwhelming. The sky isn’t falling on St. Louis, and Chesterfield will likely enjoy their food and blues just fine. As the festival scene here explodes, at times competing with long time events, how should priorities be managed? Which festivals should never move, which can go, and which (if any) is St. Louis missing?

[*edit] Mayor Slay’s Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford Tweeted that the City of St. Louis “hosted 60 significant events four years ago, and 230 last year. The problem isn’t losing events. It’s juggling all the dates.” We’re not sure how events are defined, but there’s no doubt the city’s calendar is packed. Perhaps the city should be seen as a festival start up, exporting some and hopefully keeping the ones that work best.

{the draft master plan for the Soldier’s Memorial area of the Gateway Mall}

*top image via Entertainment Saint Louis

[*edit] KSDK covers the news and makes me sound rather happy-go-lucky about the move. That’s about right.