During the first full week of October, nearly 150,000 people converge on 0.3 miles on West Franklin Street. They eat deep fried Kool-Aid and deep fried s’mores. They ride the Ferris wheel. They struggle to find parking. For this one week, it is the most popular street in Evansville — as it has been for the last 90 years every fall — but along West Franklin, from Wabash Avenue of Flags westward across Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Avenues to St. Joseph Avenue, is more than a fried food frenzy. Here, nearly 70 businesses call this four-block stretch of West Side their home.
Yes, there is more to West Franklin than deep fried thin mints and Cajun alligator jerky. For 52 weeks, this vibrant, eclectic area serves as a mix of established West Side traditions and new entrepreneurs. In just one block, between Wabash and Tenth, you can visit your insurance agent; take your child to a pediatrician; buy clothes, jewelry, and bicycles; get your taxes prepared; eat dinner; and do yoga.
The storied street has been Evansville’s mall before Evansville had a mall. Once the heart of Lamasco (a tiny town west of the River City before annexation), the street is an artery pumping with economic life, and this year, it has a new look. You saw it during the Fall Festival — or the other 51 weeks during the year.
The Franklin Street median that runs the four blocks from Wabash to St. Joe has a fresher look, thanks to a grant from Toyota, dues from the West Side Professional & Business Association, and contributions from the West Side Nut Club. What it bought was an irrigation system installed earlier this year. The result is a bright green carpet of grass that withstood Mother Nature’s best efforts during our hot, steamy summer. Petunias and ornamental grasses dot each of the islands of grass in 15 neatly landscaped flower squares. Six Canada Chokecherry trees will be planted to fill in where older trees have died, and immediately after the Fall Festival, members of the association and West Side Nut Club will plant 1,400 tulip bulbs.
The business association may be more than a century old, but the members’ efforts are novel. “Just two years ago, there were only two members in our association. Now we have 50, and that has resulted in a lot more camaraderie,” says Roger Nurrenbern, president of the West Side Professional & Business Association. His Edward Jones office is located just outside the Fall Festival route, east of Wabash in the Will Building. The association stretches another 0.3 miles eastward to include all businesses west of the bridge over Pigeon Creek.
Nurrenbern credits Mike Head, president and CEO of First Federal Savings Bank, and John Eickhoff, co-owner of Paul’s Menswear, for a decade of commitment to the business association when no one else was active in the club. “With their help and then later on with help from others, we reached out to the business owners,” Nurrenbern says. “What I really like is the fact that more of the business owners know their neighbors. They work together better because they know each other, and that results in less turnover.”
The turnover is one challenge facing Franklin Street owners, but Nurrenbern believes it has lessened. And unless the street is the location of a festival attracting more than 100,000 people, then it isn’t receiving as much attention. “I go to the meetings, and I’m glad we have the flowers and the grass,” says Chamagne Perdue, owner of Chamagne’s Closet Retail & Consignment Boutique. “But the most important thing to me is bringing in clientele to my business. That’s the bottom line for most of us.”[pagebreak]
Perdue looks forward to the Fall Festival for those marketing reasons. She opened Chamagne’s Closet Retail & Consignment Boutique in March 2010. Her shop usually closes early in the evening throughout the week, but Perdue kept the doors open later during the Fall Festival. “I know that some of the businesses don’t want to mess with the Fall Festival, but it was my best week last year,” she says. “You get a lot of new people. They’re here for the food primarily, but they still like to do a little shopping — well, at least the ladies do.”
Mike Muensterman is one owner who takes Fall Festival week off. Inside his Cobbler’s Corner between St. Joe and Twelfth is the smell of shoe glue. He’s been in business here for 18 years, but you weren’t able to smell anything inside 2321 W. Franklin St. during the Fall Festival. The doors were locked tight, and Muensterman was nowhere in sight. “During Fall Festival, you can’t open the door because of the flies,” Muensterman says. “That’s a vacation week for me every year. But don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t want to have a business anywhere else.”
Paul’s Menswear is one store that isn’t doing business anywhere else. Now in its 48th year on Franklin, the men’s clothing store has been overseen by three generations of the Eickhoff family. Founders Paul and Ruby Eickhoff are deceased, but the business still thrives under their sons, John and Steve, daughter-in-law Shawn, and grandson Brian. “Here, you can get in and out easily,” Shawn Eickhoff says. “At the mall, you have to walk so far.”
Big city residents will tell you their lives revolve around their own small neighborhood — the deli down the street, the grocery store around the corner. Now there’s a trend on West Franklin to make the street more residential. Many of the big, old buildings house businesses on only the ground floor. That leaves one or two floors above for living space. Karan Woods and her husband Robert bought four buildings on the west end of Franklin, including the old Franklin Pastry building where Woods and her business partner, Mary Moll, operate EvansvilleHomesForRent.com. All four buildings now have apartments, including three that have been refurbished as lofts.
“I hope we keep going at a steady pace and help the area continue to thrive,” says Woods, who is also secretary of the West Side Professional & Business Association. “Every year, the association intends to accomplish one major task in addition to all of the little things we do. I think the loft apartments add a nice, new dimension, and Franklin is starting to turn into an entertainment district in addition to a business district. It’s a fun place to work and live.” The entertainment options are plentiful.
For now, Nurrenbern and other business leaders toss around ideas to attract more customers to the street for the other 51 weeks of the year such as raising German flags as a tip of the hat to Evansville’s European heritage. Yet, they recognize the importance of the annual October event. “I do hope that people at the festival enjoyed the new esthetics,” he says, but he didn’t “put up any ‘Keep Off The Grass’ signs. We planted annuals for a reason. We knew it was time to take them out when the Fall Festival ended. The only thing I worried about is a big truck backing over the median. That happens maybe once every three years, and that would not be good for our new irrigation system.”