Peach Basket Classic could be on move

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WALLA WALLA -- Peach Basket Classic could be on the move this year.

Plans to relocate the annual three-on-three basketball tournament two blocks east could be a solution for merchants who say the event is a weekend-long business-buster. But the transition is becoming more contentious and controversial.

Organizers of the tournament say a move is no slam-dunk for them. They worry a change of venue -- even just a couple of blocks -- will hurt the experience for players and spectators by taking them farther from the hub of First Avenue and Main Street. The logistics of redesigning the tournament -- from finding electrical outlets to positioning portable toilets -- is also a worry.

What's more: A number of other downtown merchants say they benefit from the tournament and moving it would cost them.

On Thursday the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation board of directors is expected to revisit the issue once and for all. What's become clear through interviews with merchants, a review of possible locations and attempts to take everyone's interests to heart is that no matter which decision is made, someone's going to lose, foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said.

"There's so many pluses or minuses in this whole thing," he said. Right now the plan is to start the tournament on Main and Colville streets and extend it east. But Agostini isn't sure that will be the plan by the end of Thursday's meeting.

The matter has been on the front burner for the foundation over the last several months, he said. But in actuality, it's been brewing for years. To be clear, all of the merchants interviewed have said the YMCA-sponsored basketball tournament is a well-organized event that's good for the community. A number of them, however, believe it's time to look at another location.

"We are not the same community that we were when it started 18 years ago," said Tom Maccarone, co-owner of T. Maccarone's and Olive Marketplace & Caf©. "We're a different downtown than we were then."

Agostini said he's fielded complaints from downtown merchants about Peach Basket weekend since he took the helm at the foundation four years ago. Complaints ranged from behavioral problems with some participants disrespecting property or using vulgar language to players and spectators standing in doorways and running in and out of businesses to use facilities.

Coincidentally, Agostini had never attended Peach Basket due to a family event that came about the same time as the YMCA-sponsored and organized the first full weekend of August. For the first time last year, he was here to see what merchants had been complaining about. That's when he realized the core of the problem: Those participating in the tournament or attending as a spectator in general don't shop much during the event. But because the roads are blocked and the sidewalks are clogged with people, nonparticipants who would spend their money downtown avoid the area completely when they know the tournament is taking place.

Agostini said he determined then and there the event needed to be moved. Earlier this year he even worked with YMCA Executive Director Randy Grant to determine the new spot -- much to Grant's disappointment. The plan seemed to be moving along until another merchant pointed out there could be challenges to moving a community event. That's when he decided to survey downtown businesses and see what they thought.

The next problem arose: Survey results.

Agostini's survey of 59 businesses concluded 35 are willing to continue the tournament as it is; 23 want it moved slightly east; and one voted to move it out of downtown.

The results seemed off to Maccarone. In conversations with his downtown neighbors he said he heard numerous concerns from people whose businesses had been pounded by that weekend event. The survey by Agostini was partly skewed, he believed, by merchants who don't operate on the weekends and are not affected.

He began his own survey but excluded those not open on weekends. His results showed a majority of Main Street retailers would like to see the tournament moved.

Why the results differed so drastically is not quite clear. In some cases, Agostini and Maccarone talked to different owners of the same business who had differing views of the tournament -- an illustration of how polarizing the subject has been. In either case, Agostini conceded even hypothetically if the number of businesses that want it moved is growing, he must listen to their concerns.

"Anything that brings a pile of people downtown is an advantage to us -- plain and simple to me," Agostini said. "However, if nearly a majority of the merchants say to me 'It is not good for our business' then I have to listen to them."

Those advocating for a move, like Terry Baker, owner of DeBouch©, don't see how relocating two blocks could have such a disastrous effect on the event.

"Things change, and downtown has changed," Baker said. Though her store hasn't been open long enough to have experienced the impact of Peach Basket, Baker said she worked at another downtown shop in the past during the event. She's also heard from numerous people who say they won't go near downtown that weekend.

Conversely, Stephenie Bowen said her business, Sweet Basil Pizzeria, would definitely suffer from the change. Located across from Starbucks and Coffee Perk on First Avenue, the cluster of businesses have benefited from the tournament's built-in traffic, as has A Stone's Throw Caf© around the corner.

Bowen said her business sees four or five times more traffic during Peach Basket than a typical weekend. Though Sweet Basil would probably still see traffic from the event if it moves, it wouldn't get as much. But then it would also not get the typical weekend traffic from locals either, she said. She believes if it moves she loses twice. Moreover, she believes sometimes being part of downtown means making sacrifices for the greater good of the overall community.

"Some things are great for some people, and some things are probably not," Bowen said. "I feel like we live in a community where that is part of having a business downtown."

For the YMCA's part, Grant believes there is an overall economic benefit for the community -- even if downtown businesses don't directly reap the rewards. Last year's Peach Basket drew a record 270 teams and an estimated 3,000 people downtown. He said 25 different communities were represented, meaning some people traveled here and stayed in hotels and likely dined at local restaurants.

He said the Y has tried to be accommodating. The organization has offered to wash windows for every business this year. It also will have tighter patrols, and as usual offers businesses the opportunity to advertise promotions in giveaway bags that go to the players.

Moving the tournament poses a logistical challenge, he said. Bigger than that, it could change the "Americana" feel of the event for the worse. He said he'd like it to stay at First and Main, but will adhere to whatever the foundation wants.

"Whether we stay where we have been or move up two blocks, our goal is to run the best basketball tournament the community has," Grant said.

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