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City leaders back plans for First Friday events

As a downtown group explores options for pedestrian-only festivities in the heart of the city, commissioners expressed support for the idea at budget workshops.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 22, 2021
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The City Commission directed staff to include funding for First Friday festivities in the budget for fiscal year 2022, a precursor to the launch of a recurring downtown event series as soon as this fall.

At a series of budget meetings on July 12 and 13, a majority of the commission expressed support for holding pedestrian-only gatherings on Main Street the first Friday of each month. Mayor Hagen Brody, a vocal supporter of the concept, called the events an opportunity to bring the community together while generating activity that supports local businesses that were negatively affected by the pandemic.

“I really feel that we have to take some proactive steps in the next couple of months and years to jolt our local economy and our downtown,” Brody said. “First Fridays, I’ve seen them be so successful and work so well in other communities.”

Although the city has not finalized any plans, City Manager Marlon Brown presented some preliminary details related to the scope of the events and the cost of running them at a July 13 workshop. Brown suggested the city would close Main Street between Orange Avenue and Palm Avenue from 5-10 p.m. To hold 12 events a year, the city would be facing $74,000 in annual staff expenses: $54,000 for police services and $10,000 each for solid waste and streets and highways funding.

Brown noted that did not include costs associated with entertainment or any other programming. Brody suggested the city could work with other downtown stakeholders, including merchant and property owner groups, to coordinate programming plans and fully flesh out the events.

Commissioners Liz Alpert, Erik Arroyo and Kyle Battie also expressed support for the First Friday idea.

“Sarasota is a destination,” Battie said. “(People) want to come here, and they want excitement. They want some energy.”

​​“This is the direction that our city is going in,” Arroyo said. “This is the will of the people, and it reflects the culture and diversity of our growing downtown.”

One party that could potentially partner with the city is the Downtown Improvement District, a self-taxing group of property owners. This year, the DID has had multiple discussions about starting a series of First Friday-style events, and the group continued that conversation at a July 15 meeting.

Chris Voelker, a DID board member and a co-owner of State Street Eating House, said she had conversations with an event organizer who could take the lead on overseeing First Fridays and that an October launch was possible.

Voelker said she did not have a set plan for key details, including a budget, but she wanted the board to discuss options at an August meeting, such as the prospect of including some offerings for the benefit of businesses not open at night.

“Right now, we’re all centered on the evening — which is fabulous for me, I might say — but … people are here during the day,” Voelker said.

Both DID board members and city commissioners shared enthusiastic reactions to the idea of a series of destination events that highlighted downtown for residents and visitors alike.

“I envision our First Fridays to be family friendly, particularly in the early hours, and a regular event that not just our community but our region can come together to experience our downtown and each other and really bring a little energy, a little life to our downtown,” Brody said.


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