Friday Night Live: The Forefather of Festivals
June 17, 2013
Before the Traverse City Film Festival, before the TC Microbrew & Music Fest, downtown 5K runs and proliferation of Open Space festivities – before all the growth that revitalized downtown Traverse City – there was one event that attracted people to Front Street each summer.
Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Executive Director Bryan Crough describes Friday Night Live – the city's series of summer block parties that first began in 1991 – as the “forefather” of the festival craze currently defining the city. At the time of its founding, the National Cherry Festival was the only other special summer event downtown and Front Street was a “dead zone” on Friday evenings: Stores were closed, streets were quiet and teenagers loitering in empty parking lots were the only sign of life in the heart of the city.
“We conducted a market analysis of downtown...and came to the realization that we needed to establish Front Street as the 'hometown place to shop,'” Crough says. “Tourists wanted to go where the locals were going. So we needed to get the locals to think of downtown as a place to hang out, and in the process bring the tourists.”
The first Friday Night Live was largely improvised, with a small group of artists and volunteers handing out fliers in Central Neighborhood to attract residents. The cast from the Old Town Playhouse's production of “The Wizard of Oz” came down in character to provide entertainment, and downtown staff chipped in to transform Front Street into the Yellow Brick Road. The community response was overwhelmingly positive; families congregated, neighbors connected, locals intermingled with tourists.
The event was officially a hit. For the next 18 years, downtown TC continued to host six Friday Night Live events every summer, bringing in live music, artists, food vendors and merchants. Though the event appeared to have a haphazard design – giving off the air that participants had spontaneously arrived to peddle their wares or perform – behind the scenes, it was highly structured.
“We intentionally created a design...that felt free-flowing, while actually being very carefully organized,” says Crough.
In recent years, downtown officials have had to grapple with new obstacles relating to Friday Night Live – obstacles that, ironically, have arisen because of how successful the event has been. As downtown came to life over the last two decades, largely owing to the influx of event attendees and the subsequent transformation of the merchant culture (staying open later, servicing more shoppers), the event began to pose challenges to the very business owners it originally promoted.
“It's not a big sales night for the merchants,” Crough acknowledges. “Losing the customer parking spots on Front is an issue. In the beginning, when we were the only game in town, the owners didn't feel a big effect from the street being closed. But now with the arrival of so many other events, it's causing a crimp.”
The city's solution last year was to scale the event back from six nights to four, which it will do again this year (Friday Night Live will take place August 2, 9, 16 and 23 in 2013). And while the format will resurrect many of its past popular elements this year – free fire truck rides, a Hagerty classic car night, the downtown street sale – Crough says the city also remains open to new ideas going forward that will help ensure the event remains relevant and vital.
“Certainly, we've looked at things other cities have done, and there are lots of good ideas out there,” says Crough. “Some of the ideas people have suggested aren't feasible here, however. For example, some cities sell alcohol as a means of raising revenue. But Friday Night Live is a family event...and we're not going down that road. We also can't get into tents and too much set-up...because we need to keep the street closed a minimal amount of time.”
While Crough says Friday Night Live might not play the same critical role in energizing downtown, its original position in revitalizing Front Street is undisputed – and it still remains a well-loved community event. As such, it's not likely to go away any time soon.
“Friday Night Live was instrumental in inspiring people to realize the potential of Front Street – and of special events in the community,” he says. “I think there are still many opportunities for it to keep doing good for downtown.”