The 17th annual Capitol Hill Block Party became the neighborhood’s main fixture last weekend, drawing crowds from all over the Seattle area to the heart of Capitol Hill for three days packed with locally and nationally acclaimed live music acts. While large crowds may imply more business, the opinions on how the Block Party impacts small businesses have been rather mixed over the past few years.
Founded in 1997 by Jen Gapay, the Block Party began as a one-day event with just one stage, and was free to the public. The event continued to grow over the years, adding stages and venues throughout the past decade. Today, former programmer and talent buyer Jason Lajeunesse is the owner, as the festival continues to attract tens and thousands of people over the course of the weekend. This past Block Party’s tickets averaged at about $50 per day.
Retrofit Co-Owner Jon Milazzo has expressed that the Block Party has been extremely detrimental to her business and a struggle for her as a business owner for the past few years. Her store is situated right on the intersection of Pike and 11th, where one of the gate entrances is located. Milazzo says that the Block Party resulted in a $5,000 dollar loss in sales.
“Our experience for the past five years has always been that on the corner of 12th we lose a ton of money,” MIlazzo said. “We are right at the epicenter of everything, with barely any parking, so everyone avoids the Hill anyway. This year in addition for being blocked off from three sides, we were blocked on 12th by a hot dog vendor.”
The blockage created several setbacks for Milazzo — however, she says that the hot dog vendor claimed to have a permit from the state.
“[Because of the blockage,] on Friday I had a truck turned away because it couldn’t get in, which put a project behind,” Milazzo said. “Someone wanted to buy an arm chair, but couldn’t get the car to come around to load it so they didn’t buy it. It greatly hurt my business. This sends the message that the city doesn’t care, the Block Party doesn’t care. The attitude is very much that we have to suck it up because it’s a part of being a business in the neighborhood.”
The Block Party offers a number of businesses and residents on Pike passes as compensation for the inconveniences caused by the festival.
“We get passes for our staff, which we can offer to our staff, as compensation for them having to work the Block Party, but it doesn’t do much for me, except keep my staff happy,” Milazzo said.
Salon Moxi, located on 1319 E Pine St, is one of many businesses located on the outskirts of the festival’s main Pike St. area. Stylist Glynn Russell and her cohorts feel that despite clogging up parking spaces, the Block Party is generally good for business.
“My co-workers and I talked about the impact of Block Party, and what it came down to is that there’s more benefit than detriment,” Russell said. “Salon Moxi was established over eight years ago and we’ve seen the crowd evolve; headlining artists attract more people and more people means different people from everywhere. If anything, small business get more foot traffic that weekend than perhaps they normally would.”
Unlike Retrofit, Moxi, along with other businesses on Pine, do not receive free weekend passes.
“Of course it would be nice if neighboring businesses, who aren’t directly on Pike Street, could receive free tickets or even a discount because it is so expensive,” Russell said. “I think we all become nostalgic at the thought of Capitol Hill Block Party being free once.”
Capitol Hill Community Council Treasurer Mike Archambault believes that as someone who has attended Block Party in the past, the festival enhances the neighborhood’s “brand” and its image as a scene for arts and culture.
“Block Party builds the brand behind Capitol Hill and being welcoming of people of all types, and attracts energy and appreciation for the neighborhood in the long-run,” Archambault said. “This whole event basically transforms public space into a huge street party, and seeing that with the backdrop of the buildings of Capitol Hill is really cool and captures the vibe of the neighborhood.”
While Archambault recognizes that the Block Party detracts from businesses in the short-term, he believes that in the long-term, the Block Party can be beneficial to business.
“I can’t speak on behalf of any of the businesses, but I would think that even if in the weekend they saw a drop in traffic, a festival like this can build the name of the neighborhood so that people want to return to the neighborhood or the cool spots they discovered,” Archambault said. “In the short term I can see some of the harms, but long-term I think it’s good for the neighborhood. In a couple of weeks we can maybe see some of the Block Party goers revisit a bar they discovered over the weekend.”
Archambault does wish that the Block Party focused more on local sponsorship.
“I wish the organizers focused more on getting more local neighborhood sponsors, like Capitol Hill Businesses, or Seattle businesses, rather than corporate sponsors like Jameson and Bud Light,” Archambault said. “It would be a way for the neighborhood to show off the cool things we have here. It would also be cool to see some art exhibiting, local artists, paintings, public sculptures, murals etc. instead of just a focus on music.”
While the Block Party is one of The Hill’s many growing attractions, arguably one of the things that makes the neighborhood a place that people want to live, the jury is still out on its overall impact. Meanwhile, Milazzo is continuing to feel the aftereffects.
“I’m one store, but no one is cutting my rent for the month, no one is doing anything, there’s not really anything that’s happening for me,” Milazzo said. “Block Party is just not great for us.”