Perhaps the worst-kept secret in Conway for the last decade was that a number of downtown business owners were quietly frustrated by the growing scale and impact of Toad Suck Daze. Earlier this month the grumbling became fully vocalized as more than 20 downtown business owners signed a petition calling for Toad Suck Daze to be moved out of downtown.
A combination of record-setting crowds and some new faces downtown probably deserve most of the credit for getting the issue off the fence. Regardless, it’s a good thing. There has been more productive dialogue between festival organizers and downtown merchants this month than there has been in the last 10 years. That’s not to say all of the talk has been productive. But that’s the nature of conflict resolution.
Some bona-fide original ideas have come from this conversation: Migrate some of the festival to Markham Street to jump-start or coincide with its redevelopment. Change the "flavor" and scale of the entertainment to attract crowds that are more likely to shop downtown. Take advantage of some space at the now less-occupied courthouse and move some of the "kiddie rides" to the kids area already established there. Establish Oak Street as a "retail corridor" and set-up in a way that facilitates shopping.
Some or all of these options could be put in place quickly. They would also offer measurable relief to downtown merchants and those wanting to shop downtown. Just ideas. But they are a sign of progress. And we shouldn’t discount the value of modest progress when we’re talking about an issue with as many moving parts as Toad Suck Daze.
However, there is one audience that hasn’t been officially engaged yet — the festival attendee. Toad Suck Daze holds a special place in the hearts of many Faulkner County residents (and beyond). It’s difficult to imagine a forum to have productive dialogue with this equally important but more unwieldy constituency. It’s hard to gather or even determine the prevailing preferences of 150,000 people. But that’s no less reason to do it.
Whether you own a business downtown, organize the festival or just attend you’ve got a right to join the conversation. With that right comes the responsibility to make sure the dialogue is respectful and productive.