Downtown cruise-in motors from rocky road to smooth ride

By Thomas Wilson

   A Saturday night tradition that once filled the parking lot of Ingle's with four-wheeled Detroit darlings has enjoyed success in downtown Elizabethton.
   The Downtown Cruise-In event held exclusively on East Elk Avenue by the Carter County Car Club on Saturday nights has overcome growing pains, according to downtown businesses and supporters.
   "We are really on the upswing," said John Bunn, president of the Downtown Business Association and co-owner of The Coffee Company.
   The Elizabethton City Council voted in March to permit the Car Club to bring the event to downtown Elizabethton every Saturday from April to October. The debate came with questions about safety, concerns by downtown business owners and downtown residents regarding parking and traffic flow. Organizers met with some problems with traffic movement and logistics for attendees during the first couple Saturdays in downtown.
   "The first couple of weeks it was a little difficult," said Bunn. "That was a huge obstacle to coordinate with movement and people."
   Council members also wondered if downtown merchants would follow through with plans to remain open every Saturday night. Most downtown businesses including traditional Saturday night operators Dino's and the Doe River Bistro restaurants are open every Saturday night to accommodate cruise-in participants. David Williams said when his father Kent bought Dino's Restaurant eight years ago, the restaurant was not open on Saturday nights, but Kent Williams changed that. David Williams said news that the cruise-in was moving downtown full time gave the family pause.
   "It took him eight years to build up the Saturday night business," said the younger Williams. "We were afraid that customers might stay away from coming in because of the car show."
   David Williams said despite some early troubles with parking for customers, the restaurant and organizers had reached agreements to accommodate both interests.
   "There have been a few minor conflicts from parking but we've been able to work with the Car Club to work those differences out," said David Williams. "So far it has been pretty positive. Most of our regular customers have been able to get here."
   Bunn said approximately 180 classic cars took part in Saturday night's event.
   He said fellow downtown business owners John and Sean Huber refurbished the public address system that allows the club to broadcast information throughout downtown along East Elk Avenue as well as East E Street during the cruise-in event.
   Elizabethton Police Department Deputy Chief Larry Shell said Friday that the cruise-in event had not generated any public safety hazards catching the attention of police thus far.
   Shell said the department had not assigned an on-duty officer to work the downtown cruise-in. The department administration had expressed some concerns about overtime costs associated with policing the event.
   "We've had no reports of any problems," Shell said. "Traffic movement seems to be working well."
   The center traffic lane of East Elk Avenue remains open for through traffic. Sycamore Street also remains open to through traffic during the event. Started as a grassroots event of antique automobile owners and hobbyists, the cruise-in once packed the parking lot of Ingle's every Saturday night between spring and fall. The downtown event has picked up sponsorships from area businesses such as Antiques on Elk, Sycamore Shoals Hospital, Carter County Bank, Siemens Westinghouse, Elizabethton Lumber and Hardware, Carter County Ford, Papa John's Pizza and Elizabethton Auto Sales.
   April Proffitt, owner of All-Star Sports and Country Crafts on East Elk Avenue, said the cruise-in attracted visitors from surrounding areas and actually generated more customers from outside the community than the Covered Bridge Festival.
   "We always ask people where they are from," said Proffitt, who has sold crafts, home furnishings, and classic folk art from her store for almost nine years.
   Visitors from Greene County, Kingsport, and Asheville, N.C., were in town last Saturday night to check out Detroit's darlings that line Elk Avenue from near Lynn Avenue to Riverside Drive. Proffitt said vintage automobiles had been a passion in her family for years; her father owns 26 vintage automobiles.