Peach Basket on move

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WALLA WALLA -- Peach Basket Classic, the YMCA's annual three-on-three basketball tournament, will make a jump this year, officials said.

The 19th annual event will move west of its downtown location at First Avenue and Main Street after 18 years, about 10 of which have been mired in debate over the tournament's impact on merchants throughout the 2 1/2 days the streets are shut down.

This year's Peach Basket, scheduled for Aug. 4 and 5, will move down Main Street between Second and Fifth avenues, where more of the merchants tend to be closed on the weekends than the previous location between First Avenue and Spokane Street.

Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said he and YMCA board President Mick Miller both characterized the move as a "win-win" because the event stays downtown but frees up access to businesses for those who want to shop. He said YMCA board members were supportive of the change.

But unanimous support from the YMCA board of directors on the move doesn't necessarily mean the change will be good, YMCA Executive Director Randy Grant said this morning. He said the foundation told the Y this month that staying put was not an option. The board's unanimous support was for the next-best location, he said.

Grant said the Y and volunteers who put on the tournament will make the best of the change. But the organization continues to fear that relocation -- even a couple of blocks in the same neighborhood -- could be detrimental if participants and fans don't like the space or conditions.

"We're excited that this could be a real positive," he said. "And we're fearful that it could destroy (the tournament)."

Downtown merchant Matt Seeliger, whose Walla Walla Sew & Vac & Spas has been on Main Street for 21 years, said not hurting the tournament has been one of the chief concerns for businesses. He took on an exhaustive process of visiting with downtown business owners and asking them what they wanted for the tournament. The foundation's idea was to move it to the area from First to Fourth avenues.

"The most important thing was being more fair to the merchants without hurting the event," Seeliger said. "The economy is not fun. A lot of businesses are hurting. A single Saturday can make a difference between a good month and a bad month."

Proponents of the move have said the relocation is an important change for a growing and flourishing downtown that started relatively bare when the tournament was launched almost two decades ago. Peach Basket, too, has gotten much bigger.

Last year's tournament had 1,200 participants. About 275 of those were from the local community. The rest represented about 85 different communities. That doesn't include the participants who came from Florida, who Grant suspects were coincidentally here for vacation rather than coming specifically for the tournament.

Grant said unlike the start of Peach Basket, which had more adult participants and more from the local area, the current tournament sees more players in the 10-14 age range, and more out-of-towners.

"There aren't a lot of events where entire families can come together around a wholesome activity," he said.

The conversation about relocations is a replay of a debate last year. But in actuality it's brewed for a decade, officials said.

The challenge is this: Many of the participants in the tournament, including spectators, don't shop much during the event.

That's not an absolute. Businesses such as Sweet Basil Pizzeria, Starbucks, Coffee Perk and A Stone's Throw Caf?© are often packed with people. But they're among a relatively small number, officials say.

With the roads blocked, parking lots packed and sidewalks jammed with people, those who don't participate in the event don't shop either. Thus what merchants suspect would be an otherwise busy summer weekend has proven to be a bust for many.

On top of that, some have noted cases of unruly behavior, including disrespect to property, vulgar language, players and spectators standing in doorways and running in and out of businesses to use the facilities.

As a solution to this last year, the Y partnered with the Walla Walla Sweets Rollergirls to keep the doorways cleared and trash clean. The Y also beefed up security for the event.

Grant said he was told after the 2011 tournament that things had improved and the event was dubbed a success.

"That's the last I heard until Feburary. In March we were told we had to move," he said.

Agostini said the change had been brewing for months. Last year's tournament had improved, he acknowledged. But merchants continued to lament the effect on their bottom line.

He said board member Matt Seeliger reached out to his fellow merchants to see what, if anything, could be done.

Agostini said downtown merchants and the foundation as a whole strongly supports the event remaining downtown.

"It was that we want it in a place that's more compatible for both" merchants and the YMCA, he said.

He said merchants in the past have had poor sales but accepted it during that weekend as a community contribution.

The move, he emphasized, will set the tournament up near where the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market will be operating. That should allow for access to food and other shopping, in addition to what's available up the road on the east end of Main Street.

The city, which processes permitting for the tournament's road closures and use of public right of way, has signed off on the change.

Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont said even before concerns from merchants were aired, local law enforcement officials had suggested moving the tournament a couple of years ago to help better manage the public safety aspect. With so many businesses up and down that portion of Main Street, patrolling was cumbersome, he said.

Nevertheless, Dumont said the city didn't want to be in the middle of the discussion between the YMCA and downtown foundation if the organizations could reach their own terms. "The city supports both of them and what they're doing, and certainly wants to support the Peach and the downtown merchants," he said.

Grant said this morning he remains a little puzzled by the process. The city is the permitting agency, and thus grants or denies access to the right of way. But the city also supports the downtown foundation financially, and has a representative who serves on its board.

He said he's been contacted by a couple of downtown merchants who have reached out to say they're disappointed by the move.

The new location was one of six options the Y created when it caught wind that a change was in the air.

Agostini was accompanied by board members David Camp, Lyle Hansen and Jim Sanders during the Y's board meeting Tuesday. He said the biggest challenge posed by this tournament as compared to other community events is directly linked to the amount of time the roads are closed -- two and a half days compared to one or even a half day for most events.

Grant said his board asked if keeping the tournament in place was an option. The board was told no. Other options considered were placing the tournament from Spokane Street to east of Palouse Street; moving between First and Third avenues, which would have closed portions of Second Avenue; restructuring to a one-day tournament; or discontinuing all together.

There's a fear that the tournament will be damaged beyond repair, he said. But no one will know until the change is made.

"We're here to support the community, and we'll play by the rules," Grant said. "We're going to put on the best tournament we can."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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