For two days in the summer, Salsa on St. Clair transforms the street into a vibrant dance party. With the street brimming over with potential patrons crowding onto patios and shelling out cash for street fare such as tacos and burgers, it looks as if a business owner's dream come true. But for some, it's a nightmare.
Toronto hosts dozens of street festivals every summer across the city, blocking off sections of main arteries from traffic to host music, art and food events. They draw crowds of hundreds of thousands – or one million, in the case of the Taste of the Danforth – and are billed as celebrations of the city's vibrant communities. But behind the scenes of Toronto's street festivals, there are people who aren't as enamoured with the events and it's a cause for endless tension among the organizations tasked with hosting these festivals.
"Every year, it's a debate," says city Councillor Joe Mihevc. His ward is home to the Salsa on St. Clair festival, a Latin food and dance party that runs for the 10th year this weekend.
"Some do better than others, depending on the nature of the festival and [at Salsa] a lot of food is eaten so the restaurants do better than, say, the cleaners or the hairdressers."
Street festivals tend to disproportionately benefit restaurants and bars, while service and some retail stores have their regular customers blocked out. Some still find the foot traffic benefits their business and will make efforts to cater to festival-goers by offering different wares or hosting sales, but for other businesses it's all bad news.
"I actually lose business because of Salsa," says Winston Burnett, a co-owner at Spectacular Sounds Ltd, an audio equipment store on St. Clair. Since most of his products are large speakers and equipment, his customers need to be able to easily load their purchases into a car. No cars means no business.
"Maybe it helps the restaurants, because a lot of them have outdoor patios and all that, but for my business? No. It kills it."
Spectacular Sounds Ltd. is a paying member of the Hillcrest Village Business Improvement Area (BIA), the business collective that pays Canadian Latin broadcast company TeleLatino to organize and host the event each year. TeleLatino originally cooked up the idea for Salsa based off of the Calle Ocho Cuban festival in Miami. They approached the Hillcrest Village BIA, who was eager to participate, as they'd been looking for a festival to focus a spotlight on their community. Though the neighbourhood wasn't necessarily a centre for Latin culture, the BIA and TeleLatino hoped to build one through Salsa.
"We have a Little Italy. We have a Chinatown. We don't have a Little Havana, but this festival has kind of created this hub in Toronto," says Bruna Aloe, the public relations manager for the Salsa festival.
"It's Canada's biggest street dance party and so it's managed to unite Latinos and Latino lovers over the course of the weekend in an area that, 10 years ago, was desperately searching for this revitalization."
But each year since the festival started, the debate over the costs and benefits to various BIA members gets more tense.
"The only people it seems to benefit in this area are bars that can do extended patios. For us, it's a break-even proposition," says Kirby Azuma, owner of Noir Coffee and Tea, a coffee shop on St. Clair and also a member of the BIA. To counter the crowds, Mr. Azuma has to bring in extra staff for the weekend, a cost he says is rarely covered by in the increased revenue.
"There are so many places that just shut down for the weekend and it's really criminal for them because they're paying into the BIA. Their taxes are going to fund this thing and they lose the revenue for the weekend."
A newly opened bake shop on St. Clair has opted to close for the weekend – though the owner says she wasn't fussed over the lost revenue – as has The Stockyards restaurant and Roast, a local butcher shop. Roast's owner has instead decided to set up a barbecue stand in front of the shop, but his regular business will be squashed by Salsa.
Even some bar owners who participate question if the festival is of benefit to their business.
"It's certainly profitable for me for those couple of days so I participate willingly and we try to have a good time with it all," says Liz Guerrier, a member of the BIA and owner of Dave's … on St. Clair, a craft beer bar. She says the festival drives away her regulars and she doesn't think it's worth it for the small gains she makes in revenue.
"I'll be busy for two days but the week before and after my regular customer base has all gone out of town. They just don't want to be here."
Though she likes the festival culture in Toronto, Ms. Guerrier says she would prefer if Salsa was replaced with a smaller street fair that attracted locals and not just patrons from other neighbourhoods who come in for the party and then disappear the rest of the year.
"The people that are coming to that festival are usually coming from outside of the community and don't treat the space as I would hope they would treat their home communities."
Business owners expressed frustration with rowdy crowds, litter, vandalism and increased pressure from bylaw officers who crack down during festival times, meaning owners must be extra-vigilant while also juggling massive crowds. For some, it's not worth the headache, even when they come out on top, financially.
Of course, there are businesses owners who love these events. Frank Pronesti, another BIA member who owns two restaurants on St. Clair – The Rushton and Catch – says if other businesses embraced the festival, they'd see the benefits.
"We do well for sure. It is a lot of work to get prepared for it but I think the benefit of it is way positive. It's been a very successful festival," he says. Though restaurants and bars stand to gain more than some other businesses, Mr. Pronesti says promoting the neighbourhood to new customers is a benefit to everyone on the strip. "It's brought a lot of attention to this neighbourhood. Just the media attention we get has been fantastic for us."
During the Taste of Little Italy, which runs for three days in June each year, restaurateur John Soraci says he gets a week-and-a-half's worth of business at his Italian restaurant Marinella over the course of the weekend. Even the owner of a College Street paint and carpet store, which closes during the festival, says celebrating the area is worth the lost revenue.
"It does [hurt] in the three days but we don't mind at all," says Tony Malatesta, owner of Merit Decorating Centre Ltd. "It's a little bit of a nuisance or an inconvenience for us but we don't mind at all because we love it."
No single event will ever be a boon for every business in a given area, and it's up to the local BIA to weigh the options and vote on whether it's of a net benefit. After participating in Salsa just once in 2007, Hillcrest's neighbouring BIA – the Wychwood Heights BIA – decided that benefit simply wasn't there. On College Street, the end-of-summer Tarantella Festival met its demise this year because businesses weren't seeing the same kind of payoff they get during the Taste of Little Italy.
At Toronto's largest street festival, the Taste of the Danforth, similar tensions arise. The bash draws crowds of more than one million people, but restaurants have to pay fees to extend their patio or set up food booths. Due to the extra hassle, many businesses there choose to opt out or close entirely.
"There is money to be made but when you get into the stress and the amount of work and having to bring in extra help, sometimes, for many businesses, the economics isn't there," says Albert Stortchak, the acting chair of the Danforth BIA, which represents businesses on the Danforth from Broadview Ave. to Hampton Ave., but does not organize the event. Their neighbouring BIA, Greektown on the Danforth, leads the charge with the large-scale event.
Mr. Stortchak lives in the area and says it's also subject to the same exodus of locals during festival weekend that St. Clair sees.
But even with ongoing tension between business owners, the city's headline street festivals are here to stay. The popularity and support from city council makes many of the events too big to fail. Albert Stortchak, the acting chair of the Danforth BIA, whose antique lighting store just south of the Danforth on Broadview doesn't stand to benefit from the likes of Taste of the Danforth, says it's best if the city's business owners learn to support their neighbours.
"I've lived in this neighbourhood off and on all my life and I think if we relax and embrace it, it's once a year. A lot of the businesses, this is the weekend that can make or break them."