News Column

The music stilled and the fireworks burst, Forest Park returns to normal

July 7, 2014

By Steve Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

July 07--ST. LOUIS -- On the morning after the holiday revelry, the tennis players returned to the courts, the duffers to the links and the automobiles to Government, Concourse and McKinley drives.

Slowly but surely, Forest Park reclaimed itself after three days of concerts, fireworks, and food that marked the first time in more than 30 years that St. Louis has celebrated Independence Day at a venue other than the grounds of the Gateway Arch.

"It worked beautifully, a goose-bump experience," said Julie Hauser, spokeswoman for Fair St. Louis, the nonprofit forced by a major Arch grounds renovation to move the annual event to the 1,371-acre jewel of the St. Louis city park system.

Fair St. Louis estimated that 250,000 celebrants visited Forest Park over the three days.

Hauser said the crowds packing Art Hill throughout the weekend confirmed organizers' predictions that St. Louis would embrace the move to Forest Park.

Art Hill, Hauser said, proved to be "an amazing natural amphitheater" for Bonnie Raitt and other musical acts.

Nor, she added, did the fear that car-centric St. Louis might balk at attending functions that might require them to use public transportation or walk long distances from available free parking ever materialize.

Forest Park, Hauser reported, emptied quickly after final volleys of fireworks burst over the Grand Basin on Friday and Saturday nights.

"The traffic plan worked flawlessly," Hauser said. "People got in and out easily."

Some more easily than others.

There were some complaints, particularly from older fairgoers, that shuttles from outlying parking areas discharged passengers at stations that required lengthy walks to attend musical performances or to see the fireworks.

Vendor Chris Brown of St. Louis expressed irritation at beginning the weekend $30 in the hole -- the price he paid for parking a personal auto in a nearby lot after his Bayou Catering crew had set up operations in two locations at the top and foot of Art Hill.

Though business was steady, Brown said sales of bourbon chicken, crawfish etouffee and other specialties didn't quite match the receipts Bayou Catering took in during the years it participated in the downtown festivities.

Part of the reason, Brown reasoned, was the absence of foot traffic that Fair St. Louis typically attracts when the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium over the Fourth.

Brown along with other vendors said business was at its best at the top of Art Hill. "It was like a graveyard down there," he said, gesturing to the food sites Fair St. Louis positioned in a wooded glen to the east of the Grand Basin.

Jackie DeRamus also noticed lower sales at the Grand Basin kitchen trailer where his food service company, Lakeside Concessions, sold fresh-squeezed lemonade, chicken-on-a-stick and other fair delicacies.

But the Lakewide Concessions trailer at the top of the hill more than compensated for the losses below.

"I did every bit as good as I did at the Arch," said DeRamus, of Shawnee, Okla., whose company has fed Fair St. Louis patrons for 20 years.

The Metro-East Paramedic Association, in its 15th year as a Fair St. Louis beer tent vendor, landed a prime location near a side stage next to the St. Louis Art Museum.

"We sold twice as much beer on Friday as we have during (three days) downtown," said volunteer coordinator Jim Holley.

DeRamus acknowledged he was uncertain how the Fair, and his business, would fare in an expanse more than six times greater than that of the Arch grounds.

"All in all, circumstances being what they are and in a new location, we did pretty well," he said.

Hauser said Fair St. Louis representatives planned to spend the coming days "de-briefing" vendors, production companies and city officials on the Forest Park experience.

The nonprofit has said there is no decision on whether the Fair will be staged at Forest Park again in the event the Arch project is not completed when Independence Day 2015 rolls around.

Be it at Forest Park or the Arch, both DeRamus and Brown promised to return next year.

"We have no choice," said Brown. "This is what we do."

The final vestiges of the 2014 festivities were meanwhile disappearing as the afternoon sun moved over the park.

Trash bins were mostly empty and the park grounds were tidy, but for a few traces of confetti dotting the sidewalks and grass.

Late morning found DeRamus and Brown and other vendors in the final phases of cleaning and moving their equipment as crews nearby dismantled performance stages.

On Lagoon Drive, cars competed for road space with fork lifts ferrying portable toilets and ice machines onto waiting flatbeds.

Workers methodically retrieved and stored the NO SWIMMING signs that for three days had warned visitors from every accessible body of water.

There is still no swimming in Forest Park.

But the surest sign of the slow return to park normalcy was the visitors observing the end of Fair St. Louis from paddle boats dotting the Grand Basin.

General assignment reporter Steve Giegerich covers St. Louis County. On Twitter @stevegiegerich


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Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

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