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Food + Wine Festival – Greater Event, But Wrong Venue Again
Lee Walton

For the second time in two weeks, Peninsula Charleston has hosted major back-to-back tourism festivals and, once again, these events have demonstrated that too much of a good thing in a small, ill-equipped location can be just that – too much! Even before the dust of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition settled on the all too downtrodden pathways of Marion Square, it was again covered from edge-to-edge by a village of tents, vendor trailers and port-a-potties for the next onslaught of hungry and thirsty revelers eager to sample the many tasty tidbits of Charleston’s renowned cuisine.

Unfortunately, for the Food + Wine Festival, there is little hope of finding a single larger alternative green space within easy walking distance of the majority of hotels in the Lower Peninsula. Given the unpardonable loss of Ansonborough Field to the onslaught of deal-estate development, there are no other comparable locations below Huger Street. If synergy and finite critical mass are essential to insuring this festival’s success, downsizing to “cut the pie to fit the pan” may be the only practical alternative.

The comments above were the opening and closing paragraphs of a previous article that appeared in Shrimp ‘n Grits one year ago. They could have just as easily been written today. Judging from the magnitude of the crowds this past Saturday and Sunday and the happy faces and glowing comments from many attendees and acquaintances we bumped into, this year’s Festival far exceeded expectations and properly addressed each of the initial growing pains experienced during last year’s inaugural event. However, the fact remains that Marion Square is ill suited for such a massive, unplanned intrusion of damaging use.

Sadly for this fragile venue, the sea of white that frequently covers seemingly every square foot of Marion Square is now transforming the largest remaining green space on the Lower Peninsula into an all-too-frequent Tent City. It’s appears as though an eclectic circus has set-up permanent quarters on what is arguably the most formal of Charleston’s remaining open spaces. How much more abuse can the lawns and landscaping of Marion Square tolerate before a tipping point is reached from excessive vehicular and pedestrian traffic as these stresses transform its topsoil and remaining grass into a compacted sterile crust? Will the City Parks Department make timely, appropriate repairs to the damage now being done? Can the City Administration honestly believe that the increasing intensity and frequency of festival uses on Marion Square is sustainable? Has the City painted itself into a corner and now has no other suitable venues available for such large-scale events?

Having lost Ansonborough Field to development and the State Ports Passenger Terminal to cruise ships docking every weekend, the opportunities for alternative festival spaces in the tourist district seem limited at best. But there is another nearby possibility worthy of consideration. With a little imagination, reorganization and modest funding, the City’s Visitor Center facilities between Mary and John Streets could be transformed into a semi-permanent “festival mall” not unlike the old City Market area. These paved, open sided, albeit covered and reasonably rainproof, sheds offer vast protected spaces that could easily accommodate the Food + Wine Festival; they already have most of the service amenities and nearby utilities necessary to support large food service operations. The adjacent “Transit Mall” between Ann and John Streets could provide additional space for outdoor dining facilities and related activities. Additionally, Ann and John Streets could be temporally closed to vehicular traffic between King and Meeting Streets to stitch the interior of these three city blocks together into a pedestrian friendly open space. Large and convenient public restrooms already exist in the nearby Visitors Center and have served large outdoor events during the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and Spoleto Festival for many years.

The recent renovations and commercial redevelopment of King Street’s “Mid-Town District” now offers the contiguous synergy necessary to stretch the now over crowded tourist district well north of Calhoun Street. The development of a dedicated Festival Mall between Mary and John Streets is an idea now worthy of serious consideration.

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