Commentary: A Summer of Lost Firsts

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I admit, when I was asked to join Youngstown’s First Friday committee, I wasn’t all that familiar with the concept. I mean, I had heard about events taking place the first Friday of every month this summer. But I hadn’t been able to attend any.

So I did some research and came to the conclusion that it’s about time! Why shouldn’t we test the waters with First Friday events this year? Then next summer, when downtown construction is finally over, and there is parking and access to local establishments, Youngstown’s First Fridays will be ready to roll with art, live music, dancing, food and culture, attracting people from all over the Valley.

Canton has First Fridays, as does Cleveland. In fact, cities across the country are drawing thousands to their downtowns on the first Friday of each month.

When I researched “First Fridays,” I found that some cities hold gallery hops, in which the town’s art galleries and museums open their doors on Friday evening. The idea is that galleries, by pooling their openings, will attract people to the downtown and enrich the art community.

Granted, galleries are few and far between in Youngstown. But that just means we have to be more creative. Youngstown has the world-renowned Butler Institute of American Art and the McDonough Museum of Art. We also have the Tyler History Center, the Oh Wow Children’s Center, America Makes and the Ward Beecher Planetarium. All could open their doors on a Friday evening. And we could have temporary galleries in spaces such as the Concept Studio and Smarts. 

First Friday events are organized by the Downtown Youngstown Partnership and CityScape.

“The goal is to create a robust and vibrant downtown through the activation of the Phelps Street corridor and other spaces through pop-ups, entertainment, public art, activities, vendors, special events and institutions staying open late,” says CityScape’s Adam Lee. “We hope to support business, connect the downtown to the university and surrounding neighborhoods, and create a sense of place that is walkable and welcoming to guests.”

Cleveland has First Friday Hops, with a trolley making the rounds at three locations for live music, vendor markets, beverages and food trucks. 

In a recent conversation, Adam and I imagined how cool it would be to have a trolley transporting people to the museums on Wick, with stops at Federal and Phelps, Penguin City Brewery and the B & O Station – much like the Columbiana Clipper Day Tripper takes patrons to Firestone Farms, the Vineyards at Pine Lake, Birdfish and other venues.

Committee members suggested that each month a local business could sponsor cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a cigar lounge on Phelps for their employees, helping to keep people downtown.

I learned that Richmond, Va., has one of the largest First Fridays art walks in the nation and draws nearly 20,000 people. One of the oldest First Fridays is in Boston’s SoWa Arts District where more than 80 artists open their studios to the public. Philadelphia has been doing First Fridays for 30 years in the Old City area with many organizations offering free wine and snacks.

May was the first First Friday in Youngstown, falling on Cinco de Mayo. And while there have been First Friday events each month since, organizers acknowledge it’s been a slow go. A big reason is that driving downtown is like trying to find your way out of a never-ending corn maze.

In fact, it’s been a lost summer for many businesses despite some big events at the Covelli Centre and the amphitheater. While there was no lack of crowds at the 31-year-old Brier Hill Fest, for inaugural events this summer, it was rough.

Events such as the Glenwood Festival, and Rock the Lot featuring The Vindys and billed as a tailgate kickoff to the YSU football season, didn’t draw the numbers that organizers expected. Pickle Palooza at Penguin City (where I enjoyed my first Penguin City Pickle beer) also seemed a bit sparse despite live music, hot dog eating contests and a pickleball tournament.

September’s First Friday will once again face stiff competition. This time from the Canfield Fair and, of course, high school football.

Still, on Sept. 1 visitors will be able to enjoy live music on Phelps, Zumba at Wean Park, kayaking with Friends of the Mahoning River, Chalk the Taproom at Penguin City, and even take a picture with Pete the Penguin as part of YSU’s Welcome Week. Plus, many businesses will be running food and drink specials.

I recently read a blog that encouraged restaurants to give back to their communities by participating in First Fridays. This can benefit businesses with free advertising on social media and bringing in new customers.

The blog suggested restaurants offer exclusive menu items available only on First Friday, or a special cocktail to attract new patrons – perhaps named after a local landmark. Or offer a 15% discount during First Friday hours.

Restaurants could display artwork from local artists and hold a reception with drinks, hors d‘oeuvres and live musicians.

The bottom line is First Fridays not only bring people and support to downtowns, they also encourage members of the community to engage with each other. Youngstown’s First Fridays are a work in progress and this first year will culminate with the Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting on the first Friday in December.

Then, during the winter months, planning will be in full swing for 2024. So mark your calendars for May 3, when the first First Friday of the new year takes place. It will launch a summer of people enjoying the Phelps Street Corridor, eating and drinking at restaurants, enjoying art, live music and a renewed sense of community.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.