Taste of Mystic is bitter among feuding parties

Mystic - Downtown Mystic restaurant owners are fighting with their own chamber of commerce over the Taste of Mystic, after the chamber initially canceled the well-known food festival and the merchants decided to organize their own event for the same weekend.

The Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce announced in mid-February that it would cancel the Taste, which attracts about 40,000 people on the weekend after Labor Day and has been held downtown for at least the past decade. The chamber cited logistical concerns as the issue.

When merchants heard this, the owner of Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream and other downtown businesses decided to set up an alternative food festival under a different name: Mystic Eats.

In March, the chamber reinstituted the Taste and signed a three-year contract to hold it in Olde Mistick Village outside the downtown during the same weekend, Sept. 5-7.

The prospect of two festivals the same weekend has incensed some merchants who said they're proceeding with their downtown event and it threatens to confuse tourists, who are the bread and butter of the region's summer economy.

"They're yanking the event out of our downtown and moving the event to another location on the same weekend," said Rod Desmarais, owner of Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream and chairman of the Downtown Mystic Merchant Executive Committee. "What chamber holds a competing event with members of its own chamber?"

But the Taste is still in Mystic and will benefit all merchants, said Stefan Ambrosch, president of the Olde Mistick Village Merchants Association.

"Downtown and the shops and the hotels are going to be just as busy because it's a mile down the road. It's not like we're moving the Taste of Mystic to Maine," said Ambrosch, who also owns Mango's Wood-Fired Pizza.

Ambrosch said he contacted the chamber the day after he heard the Taste would be canceled because he's attended since he was 18 years old. He offered the village as a venue, negotiations began and the chamber and village then signed a multiyear contract, he said.

Downtown restaurants are welcome to participate, and the Village will offer better parking, more space and a larger public tent for people to sit under if it rains, he said.

"Some people have a very 'us versus them' mentality in Mystic. As if downtown Mystic is somewhat different than any other area of Mystic," he said. "We do not want that."

Jim Bates, chairman of the chamber's board, said he's pleased with the arrangement. "We're excited that Taste gets to stay in Mystic. ... We're looking forward to it, and that's what we're focused on," he said.

But the chamber created a void when it initially canceled the Taste, downtown merchants said. They said they had to act because tourists book hotel rooms a year in advance and would have arrived downtown to find nothing going on.

"You've got to do something," said Leo Roche, owner of The Harp and Hound pub. "You can't just take the event out of the downtown with everyone coming in from all over the state. ... It just doesn't make sense."

Many guests return year after year for events, including Taste of Mystic, said Sandra Chapman, innkeeper of the Steamboat Inn. Marinas also remain open and people arrive by boat to attend the festival, she said. "If it wasn't going to be happening here, we needed to step up. We were in a position where we needed to fill a void," she said.

But the chamber owns the event and has the right to move it if it believes that is a sound business decision, Ambrosch said. "It would not be a financially sound decision to hold an event that you feel you cannot pull off successfully," he said.

The Seaport Marine boathouse, which served as the beer and wine house in the past, was leased and unavailable, Ambrosch said. "As far as talking about expenses, they're massive," he added. "It's very costly between the bands, the police presence, the insurance and the permits. This is no easy deal."

Stephanie Marshall, vice president of Downtown Mystic Merchants and owner of Tidal River Clothing Co., said the chamber knew last fall that the boathouse would not be available but never contacted the downtown merchants. "My second biggest issue was we had told them that we were going to put something together to fill that void and then they were approached by the Olde Mistick Village and instead of telling them the downtown is already taking care of it, they went into negotiations," she said.

The chamber might own the name Taste of Mystic, but it doesn't own the downtown or the weekend after Labor Day, Desmarais said, adding that the Taste shouldn't be about money. "I don't think they'd lose money on it, but even if they did, so what?" he said. "What's your mission here? Is it to make profits for the chamber or is it to help the business community?"

d.straszheim@theday.com

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