Business owners hope Cruise-In will bring revenue to downtown

By Julie Fann and
Thomas Wilson
star staff,

Downtown business owners on Tuesday said they are hopeful the Carter County Car Cruise-In scheduled every Saturday evening beginning April 3 to the end of October will bring in more customers and, as a result, more revenue to their businesses.
   "Every time they've had the car show here it's been good for me," said Jerry Harrison, owner of T.V. Memories, a store that sells pop culture memorabilia. "A lot of people that fool with the old cars also collect other old stuff, old car tags and brochures and stuff like that."
   T.V. Memories stocks everything from old Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dolls to vintage Johnny Cash albums. The store also sells comic books and super hero figurines. Harrison said the downtown Cruise-Ins held in August and October 2003 resulted in an increase in his customer base - something he hopes will continue now that the event will be held downtown regularly. Harrison has owned T.V. Memories for four years.
   Cathy Shoun, owner of the Dressing Room, said she also expects business will increase over time.
   "The ladies at the car show come in here and shop around, and my shop has special events and they'll go tell someone about it, and later that week or the next week, I'll have somebody say, 'Oh, so-and-so was downtown for that car show and sent me in here," Shoun said, adding that she also believes the Cruise-In adds a nostalgic touch that customers love.
   "With the old buildings downtown, it's almost like walking back in time, and these people that have their beautiful show cars which they brought to life again, they come down and sit around, and it becomes a social event," she said.
   With the emergence of "Super" everything (Wal-Mart, Lowe's, etc.), though the Cruise-In may offer a 1950s-style atmosphere in the visual sense, whether or not it will generate 1950s-style revenue reminiscent of the military industrial complex and the widening of the middle class is an entirely different story. Nevertheless, even Margo Bentley, whose father opened Ritchie's Appliance long before World War II, is hopeful that the event will cause a boon to downtown business.
   "We're excited about it and all the different people we're going to have downtown. We're going to be open this Saturday night and just take it from there. It gets the word out and people see you," she said.
   The Downtown Merchants Association is suggesting that business owners keep their stores open until 9 p.m. at least on the third Saturday of each month when Cruise-In sponsors will register the cars in a $500 drawing.
   Kathy Woody, an employee at Duck's Crossing, said the store will be open every Saturday evening in April and May until 9 p.m., and Sheryl Garland, who owns Duck Duck Goose Cafe located in the back of the store, said she expects to seat about 75 people, many of them at tables set up outside on the sidewalk, this Saturday.
   "Based on last year, basically they ate a lot of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, but we also have salads, soups, sandwiches and lots of desserts," Garland said. "I expect a great turnout this Saturday mostly because it's the first thing of the season and they're really promoting it."
   John Bunn, who opened The Coffee Company seven years ago, said he looks forward to the completion of several projects by the city to improve the look of the downtown. "At the end of this year when we finish a lot of the improvements in how we look, the difference is going to be amazing," he said. The city will soon change all of the awnings of downtown businesses and replace light fixtures and planters. The cost of the projects, according to Bunn, is $45,000.
   Ron McCloud, who owns Antiques on Elk, worked with other business owners and car club members to gather sponsors for the event, which, in addition to his business, include Sycamore Shoals Hospital, Carter County Bank, Siemens Westinghouse, Elizabethton Lumber and Hardware, Carter County Ford, Papa John's Pizza, and Elizabethton Auto Sales.
   "Each one of these sponsors generated $1,000 each. All proceeds will go to the East Tennessee Christian Home," McCloud said. He said that, on the third Saturday of each month when participants pay $5 to register their car in a $500 drawing, the registration fee will replenish the money that is given away. "So, basically, $1,000 goes to the Christian Home," he said.
   Organizers expect 300-400 cars will participate in the Cruise-In each week, and the number of people who attend will be twice that number.
   Jack Tester, president of the Carter County Car Club, designed a T-shirt that features a cartoonish downtown Elizabethton with the names of all sponsors on billboards and signs. The shirts will sell for $10 each and any profit also will go to the East Tennessee Christian Home.
   The Carter County Cruise-In began approximately 7 years ago when owners of vintage cars in search of a place to meet started gathering in the Ingle's grocery store parking lot. Many of the owners are also members of the Carter County Car Club, which is over 25 years old.
   In order to participate in the event, cars must be old, strange, or extremely new and rare. McCloud said cars such as the new two-seat Thunderbirds can participate, or cars that have extra cosmetic attachments that render them extraordinary can also attend.
   Elizabethton City Council voted at its March meeting to approve an agreement with the Car Club permitting the event. The agreement includes an option for either party to terminate the event at its discretion.
   The Elizabethton Police Department plans to assign at least one officer to monitor the event's inaugural night in the downtown. The department will set up barricades to stop through-traffic in portions of the downtown area to accommodate the event.
   City officials had expressed concern about the potential for overtime accrued by police officers if they were required to monitor the event each night.
   Deputy Police Chief Larry Shell said Tuesday that Saturday night's event probably would not mean overtime for the officer assigned, but continued police presence would mean overtime hours for officers. He said the department planned to review the first night to determine whether permanent police presence was necessary.
   "I think the first week will set the standard that will determine to what extent the police will have to deal with the event," said Shell. "We do not anticipate any problems."
   The following streets will be blocked on Saturday night:
   * East Elk Avenue from Lynn Avenue to Sycamore Street
   * East C Street from Lynn Avenue to Sycamore Street
   * Pine Street from the Veterans War Memorial to East E Street
   Connector streets of Pine and Elm will also be blocked at access points to East Elk Avenue and East C Street. Sycamore Street will be open to through traffic.
   The Cruise-In is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and extend until after dark. Streets will be blocked off at 4:30 p.m.