Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's the Future for First Friday?

First Friday has had a troubled past of violence such as this 2002 incident
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

In the wake of a shooting that injured six people after this past First Friday street festival, Sheriff Ronnie Strength is issuing an ultimatum: Either some group needs to step forward to sponsor the event and pay for added security or the city needs to shut it down. The sheriff estimates that he has to pull anywhere from between 20 to 50 deputies from patrols elsewhere just to cover First Friday. He says this has become an increasing problem as the event has been attracting a criminal element later at night. The shooting occurred at 11:30pm, two hours after what is supposed to be the official end of the street festival.

The Sheriff says because no one is officially in charge of the event there is no one to enforce the 9:30pmW closing time for street vendors and some are staying around much longer and this is encouraging the loitering by groups of youths into the late night hours. The Sheriff also complains that because the event no longer has an official sponsor or organizer there is no point person to coordinate security with his department.

When First Friday was run by Main Street Augusta prior to 2006, they would hire off duty deputies to work specials during the event and remain downtown long past the official 9:30pm closing time. Main Street Augusta also strictly enforced the 9:30pm closing time and charged street vendors a permit fee to offset the cost of extra security.

Now street vendors simply set up shop wherever an individual business owner allows them to do so. Some pack it up by 9:30pm but others don't and the sheriff says there needs to be better organization to enforce the rules and some one needs to be in charge if it is to continue.

So how did it get to this point?

A Brief History of First Friday
First Friday started in 1994 by a group of art gallery owners on the upper blocks of Broad Street now known as Artists Row. Back then it was a simple affair and pretty much confined to the galleries. It was more of what you would call a "wine and cheese" event with people ambling from gallery to gallery to see the latest exhibitions by local artists.

But as more businesses started to take root in downtown, First Fridays grew. It was eventually taken over by Main Street Augusta, which was an organization which handled the promotion and organization of many downtown events before the Downtown Development Authority started to take things over. Under Main Street, the festival expanded to include street performers, added more street vendors, and bands. First Friday reached its zenith in 2002 with crowds of 10,000 people attending the event.

This doesn't mean everything went smoothly. A particularly violent incident occurred in October of 2002 that resulted in windows being smashed at downtown businesses, and multiple fights resulting in people being taken to the hospital. The incident led to the adoption of new rules such as forbidding carrying open containers of alcohol on downtown streets, banning "to-go" cups from downtown bars, and adding more security after the official 10pm closing time. Initially amplified bands were banned from the event but that restriction was later relaxed. Also, Main Street adopted more uniform registration guidelines for street vendors.

After the 2002 incident First Friday never was able to regain its lustre, with crowds cut in half from the peak in 2002. In 2005 The Augusta Commission began to relax some of its rules on street vendors and entertainers in an effort to re-energize the event. Registration fees for vendors started to be waived. A greater variety and number of vendors were allowed to participate instead of only those selling handmade crafts and artwork. Also, Main Street started to spread the vendors over more blocks, whereas they had previously congregated between 10th and 8th streets.

But in 2006 Main Street Augusta dissolved, or as some contend, they were shut down by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) under the leadership of Margaret Woodard. The DDA assumed the responsibility of First Friday from Main Street, but it became evident that the DDA wasn't very enthusiastic about  sponsoring the event. Margaret Woodard and some members of the DDA wanted to stop sponsoring First Friday all together. Eventually,  a plan was worked out where the Greater Augusta Arts Council would take over control of the event in 2007. However, the DDA never relinquished the funding they were getting from the city to organize First Friday and pass it along to the Arts Council. The DDA continues to hold on to that money even though they have no involvement in organizing First Friday.

After a few years, the Greater Augusta Arts Council began to scale down their involvement in the event significantly. Gone were any official regulation guidelines or fees from street vendors. No bands were sponsored to perform at the event anymore, though the Arts Council did sponsor a couple of street performers. It has pretty much just become an ad-hoc street fair with no one really in charge anymore. Vendors set up wherever they can and the 9:30pm closing time has become more of a suggestion than a strictly enforced rule.

The sheriff says this is when things started to go down hill and the criminal element started taking over. He says for the event to continue it must have an official sponsor and better organization.

How Do You Cancel An Event That Doesn't Officially Exist?
That's the question a lot of people have been asking. Since First Friday has become less of an organized street festival and more of just an idea in people's minds, how do you cancel it? Well, according to the sheriff, the city could set up a strict ordinance governing street vendors. This could stipulate that street vendors must obtain a permit and pay a fee to set up shop and must close down by 9:30pm and street fairs can only operate downtown under an official sponsor organization who is responsible for enforcing the rules and coordinating public safety with the sheriff's department.

If no organization steps up to take control of the event and vendors are still setting up then they would be in violation of the ordinance and subject to fine. But what about the trouble makers who come long after the official First Friday is over? The Sheriff's department is already looking at beefing up enforcement of the city-wide curfew for minors. Currently the curfew for unattended minors on Friday and Saturday nights is midnight. Some people say that should be lowered to 10pm.

The sheriff contends that getting vendors off the street by 9:30pm will help control the party atmosphere that encourages these marauding bands of teenagers from hanging out downtown after 10pm and getting in trouble.

Hitting the Reset Button
 Opponents of First Friday say there is no way to fix the event and it is long past time for it to end. They contend that timing a street fair on a Friday night, particularly during the Summer, is just asking for trouble.  Friday is payday and for a lot of young people that means party night at the bars and clubs. Critics say that First Friday only exacerbates and magnifies problems that are typical on Friday nights, and that the street fair atmosphere gives groups looking to cause trouble a cover. 

They also complain that the event has strayed far beyond the quaint gallery walk that it started out as and is no longer a family friendly event. Critics also say that First Friday no longer attracts a clientele looking to spend money in art galleries, antique shops and other retail establishments and has become more of a burden on them now. 

Ed Presnell, a downtown resident and former president of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce, held a Saturday news conference calling for the end of First Friday. He was joined by Augusta Commissioner Matt Aitken, Sheriff's candidate Robbie Silas, and various downtown business owners and residents. Presnell insisted that he did not want to pull the plug on all downtown events, but would like to see more family-oriented events held earlier in the day. He suggested that instead of a Friday evening festival, something held earlier in the day on Saturday would be a better idea. He also mentioned this could link up with the Saturday market.

Presnell was not the first to suggest a Saturday festival. On Facebook and elsewhere, people have even been referring to it as Sensational Saturday and have been suggesting it could be like a mini monthly Arts in the Heart. Proponents say a Saturday festival could give a boost to restaurants twice.. at lunch and for dinner and would be a bigger draw for retailers who often miss out on much of the spending in First Friday.

Graduating Beyond First Friday
Many observers say it will be hard to simply cancel First Friday because it has become so ingrained in people's minds. Even now that there is little left of an organized event, people still associate First Friday as the one day out of the month when there are crowds downtown, when the streets seem less desolate and more lively. There's always this big build-up to First Friday; it's like the one big hurrah for downtown each month and the other 29 days are rather dull.

Critics of First Friday say that is precisely the problem, that the sole focus on a once a month event has limited creativity for other events to take root. They say that for downtown to have sustained vitality it needs more than one night's worth of activity a month. Also, First Friday critics contend that the big psychological build-up to what is now an ad-hoc street fair encourages the trouble makers to come out and that they have the date marked on their calendars. 

Suggestions have been made to graduate past First Friday and have more frequent events downtown that focus on associations of businesses. Friday evenings could be marketed as a "Dining Out Downtown" night by restaurants and cafes.. where specials are offered, free samples, and entertainment. Other cities have done events like "Doggy Happy Hours" where patrons can bring their four legged friends with them to dine al fresco at sidewalk cafes, and the restaurants can offer cute gimmicks like doggy appetizers and cocktails (sans alcohol of course). 

Other days could focus on retail, where downtown dress shops could feature fashion shows and other promotions. A Sensational Saturday event could focus on the arts and recapture the spirit of the original First Friday with a Gallery Walk and an arts and crafts fair.

One evening a month could feature Classics on the Common, showing classic movies under the stars on The Augusta Common. Downtown businesses could run specials and promotions themed around whatever particular film is being played.

A scavenger hunt could entice customers into a variety of businesses, where clues can be found inside those businesses that ultimately lead to a prize somewhere downtown. A downtown scavenger hunt map could guide visitors and promote participating visitors.

The key should be events with focus that draw attention to particular types of downtown businesses. These events should be family friendly and appeal to varying interests. Instead of having a once a month free-for-all event.. have small, yet more frequent and focused events that will get people in the habit of patronizing downtown on a regular basis instead of just once a month.

But this strategy will require better leadership and coordination downtown and many people say that The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is not helping, that in fact they are getting in the way of progress. DDA critics say the authority hogs tax money and stifles innovation.

We told you in an earlier report how downtown property owners are subject to an additional tax under the Business Improvement District (BID), under the proviso that the $350,000 collected each year would primarily go towards providing enhanced public safety downtown, However, what downtown got was the CADI program (Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative) which involves a handful of people sweeping sidewalks and riding on a segway. Many business owners say this is not what they had in mind for enhanced public safety and to make matters worse the DDA is charging the BID $25,000 a year to administer the CADI program.

Perhaps to graduate from First Fridays it will be incumbent upon downtown business owners themselves to take the reigns away from the DDA and start doing things own their own. One way to do that is through the newly reactivated Downtown Advisory Panel (DAP).  The DAP has the power to go around the DDA and go directly to the commission to lobby for the interests of downtown. If the Commission does decide to pull the plug on First Fridays perhaps they should also pull the plug on the DDA, which has become more of an adversary to downtown business owners than a guiding force for downtown development.***

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