First Fridays event plans under way

LIVE MUSIC FEATURED — Live music in front of downtown storefronts drew a crowd during last year’s First Fridays on Fourth celebration.

STEUBENVILLE — Therese Nelson hopes the day comes when Steubenville won’t need the First Fridays on Fourth events to bring people and business downtown. But until it does, she said they’ll go on planning the monthly street festivals.

“I don’t know how long it will take,” said Nelson, one of the event organizers. “First Fridays is really an interim event. I hope it goes on for as long as it takes a ‘real downtown’ to happen here, but my hope is that First Fridays will die out eventually because we have so much going on down here — that it’s such a happening place and so busy, we won’t need First Fridays anymore.”

First Fridays on Fourth are themed events held on, of course, the first Friday of each month beginning in April and continuing through November. April’s theme is fish fry and November’s, Halloween. In between they’ll be celebrating Art Festival (May 3); Frontier Days (June 7); Cookout/Freedom Friday (July 5); 80s Edition (Aug. 2); Irish Fest (Sept. 6) and Half Hills Music Fest (Oct. 4).

“I think a lot of people saw what we were trying to do (last year), they were able to get on board and realize it’s not just wishful thinking,” she said.

Nelson describes it as a kind of community stepping stone — a fun way to build civic pride and get people comfortable with the idea they can spend a fun afternoon or evening walking around downtown with family and friends. The games, food trucks, vendor booths, art displays and live entertainment that are part of First Fridays are a snapshot of what the downtown could be with a little TLC, she said.

“To me, each of the vendors represents a business that could be downtown, permanently,” she said. “The galleries, the craft beers, the games … those could all be permanent. Sometimes you have to show people what you want for them to understand and believe.”

This year, Nelson said organizers are planning a #thisplacematters campaign to highlight the buildings and opportunities downtown worth a closer look:

It builds off the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s successful campaign to encourage people nationwide to “celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and to their communities.” The idea, NTHP says, is to “encourage and inspire an ongoing dialogue about the importance of place and preservation in all our lives.”

Nelson said they plan to highlight a different unoccupied downtown storefront each month to “get more people interested in them.”

“We want to get building owners to let us use their storefronts for displays,” Nelson said. “We’d like the buildings to post the owners name and contact information, potential uses and maybe a little about previous uses — all the information someone would need if they were looking” for a business opportunity.

“One of the biggest roadblocks to development is that people don’t know what’s here,” she added. “When people are down here, maybe we can get them inside (so they can see the possibilities themselves).”

This year the public will also be able to enjoy horse-and-carriage rides through the downtown, as well as more art galleries and “installation art” — that’s bigger, three-dimensional pieces where the arrangement itself makes a statement.

Nelson said installation art can be as simple as, say, a stack of lawn chairs arranged in a specific way.

“It’s modern art, statement art,” she said.

“We’d also like to do some interactive activities where everybody who comes to First Friday’s helps. It could be as simple as getting everybody to sign a balloon or paint a brick, or even throwing water balloons filled with paint at a wall.”

April’s celebration is typically smaller due to uncertainty about the weather, she said, but it will still be busy: She said they’ll be encouraging the First Fridays crowd to decorate wooden eggs for an Easter installation art piece.

Nelson said the Grand Theater will host a “Battle of the Bards” throughout the First Fridays season: Each month two groups of actors will go head-to-head, each performing a locally written, 10- to 15-minute skit. Viewers will watch each entry, then decide which one they want to bring back the following month for a sequel.

In April, they’ll also be doing an Easter egg hunt for kids, with live music and a variety of vendors keying on the fish fry theme.

She said other organizations are also looking at ways to get involved. Smitty’s, for instance, is working on a Friday night wrestling event. Others are discussing the possibility of hosting a three-on-three basketball competition, or trying to get the go-ahead for things like a 5-K race or a square dance.

Nelson said the more, the merrier.

“People want to tag (activities) onto First Fridays because it’s bringing people down here,” she said.

“What we would hope is that in five or 10 years, there’ll be movies playing at the Grand, more restaurants where people can eat, a craft brewery and stores” lining the streets, she said.

“I think we’re starting to see that — some of the vendors are doing so well, they might as well open a shop,” Nelson said. “First Fridays is really a business incubator, it’s growing and evolving the downtown.”