Mayor Criticizes Downtown Merchants Over Oktoberfest Petition
Mayor Tom Tomzak says he is disappointed with downtown merchants on Caroline Street who called for Oktoberfest to be moved or changed so that it doesn't take numerous blocks. Their business suffers during the event, they said.
Fredericksburg Mayor Tom Tomzak criticized downtown merchants today who spoke out against having Oktoberfest on Caroline Street because it hurts their businesses and seems to only benefit the sponsor, Capital Ale House.
In a prepared statement, Tomzak said he will urge City Council to protect the "common good and not surrender to special interests and their cash registers."
"I am very disappointed that, one of the first relatively large consensus decisions of Caroline business people involved turning their back on the good citizens of Fredericksburg," Tomzak wrote. "Many of the same business people were against the hotel, very few if any have worked to advance the Riverfront Park. The good citizens spent thousands on brick sidewalks & and enhanced snow removal to facilitate these business people & now the businesses turn their back on the common good."
A decision on what to do with Oktoberfest, if anything at all, is unlikely to happen before the May 1 election when some members could lose their seats. Mayoral candidate Fred Howe will remain on City Council, but challenger Mary Katherine Greenlaw and Kerry Devine could be ousted this election. Tomzak is not running again. Both Howe and Greenlaw support moving the event to the riverfront park on Sophia Street. Devine seemed open to the idea and Councilwoman Bea Paolluci joined Howe and Devine in asking the city manager to investigate the matter and come back with recommendations later this month.
Edwin Wyant, who owns Virginia Wine Experience at 826 Caroline St., said he believes most people realize the good downtown merchants bring to the city. Wyant said Mayor Tomzak has always been a bit "anti-Caroline Street" when it comes to the merchants and he's never said much positive about them during his tenure in office.
"We've got to make positive change for everyone," he said. "We don't think the Oktoberfest should go away."
Wyant said Caroline Street is so packed with people in the barricades that it makes it difficult for anyone to navigate to other businesses. The barricades are an ABC requirement that the drinking public must be segregated from the regular public.
"I think there would be a lot less criticism if they backed it down to one block," he said about the event that took up four blocks this past year.
Bill Beck, owner of Beck's Antiques on 708 Caroline St., said he isn't sure how the mayor is defining "common good." He said Tomzak's comments are offensive.
"I think his view of the common good unfortunately always seems to involve beer," Beck said. "I would never define beer drinking as sort of a highlight of civic involvement."
Beck said he believes moving the event to Riverfront Park is the better solution. He said it may not be perfect, but it would make it just as advantageous for the other merchants on Caroline Street. He said an underlying issue with this controversy is that Oktoberfest isn't an event than enhances the character of downtown.
Almost 10,000 people showed up to Oktoberfest last year, making it one of the most-popular events the city has each year. Beck noted that the owner of Capital Ale House wrote an email to the city in 2009 that stated the event was meant to increase business to his restaurant.
"Clearly that is what this is about, and the issue with the mayor, is it really in the public interest to turn over a public street to one business, a special interest that is not based in Fredricksburg?" Beck said. "The purpose of the event is to make money for Capital Ale House. It has no broader purpose."
Wyant and Beck were a part of a coalition of downtown merchants who signed a petition—almost 100 people—that urged City Council to make changes to Oktoberfest because it hurts other downtown merchants.
A representative of Capital Ale House's headquarters in Richmond have not returned numerous phone messages seeking comment.