Local businesses point to the uptick in sales during the monthly festival. Third Thursday kicks off tonight from 5 to 8.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — North Street shopkeepers expressed a range of cautious optimism to beaming enthusiasm as they prepared Wednesday for the city's sixth year of 3rd Thursday festivities to begin tonight.
"Shopping or not shopping, they're coming downtown, they're checking things out," said Michael Moore of Persnickety Toys, a co-sponsor of this month's event, which is themed around local youth. Moore, like other downtown merchants, said even the customers who don't make purchases the night of the event are more likely to return.
Moore said he was pleased that the announced cancelation of this week's kickoff had been reversed. He was hoping for a "boost" in business, which has been down lately as a result of the very construction that had raised safety concerns about the festival.
"Last year was so much worse," referring to the earlier phase of streetscape construction, "We didn't have sidewalks for the first few 3rd Thursdays."
Alan Greaves, of Brits R Us, which opened in September, said he was also hoping for such a boost after what he described as a slow spring following resumed construction earlier this year.
"I'm hoping that people will want to come and walk on these beautiful sidewalks," said Greaves, whose British goods store contains a plethora of tasty anglophilic snacks and delicious cold drinks from across the pond.
Some expressed more blatantly unreserved ardor for the event.
"It's the best thing that's ever come to Pittsfield in our couple of generations," Jeff Winslow, owner of longtime North Street staple Wild Sage, said without hesitation.
Winslow stressed the importance of each participating business having some attraction as part of the overall event.
"The people are always looking for something new, and that's what we have to give them, not just every year but every single month, keep giving them new variations on the theme so they're inspired to come back."
While there's been no full-scale study conducted of the complete economic impact of the annual series of community events, Cultural Development Director Megan Whilden said that in a survey of participating establishments, 100 percent indicated that they saw an increase in business because of 3rd Thursday.
Whilden spoke with iBerkshires about the significance of this month's theme of youth in the context of the role these events have taken on in the life of the community over the past half decade.
"Now you have kids that are growing up with 3rd Thursdays, and 3rd Thursday is a part of their lives, and it's part of how they see the world and they see their community," said the city's cultural czarina. "Unlike kids 10 years before, they live in a community that gets together once a month when the weather is nice and hangs out together in the middle of the street."
"It's changing young people's perception and feeling about their community, and I think, having a positive effect on their childhood."
Cultural Director Megan Whilden said the key to the event's success is diversity — it's not just about art.
The appeal of the monthly street fair, which has run every May through October since 2006, is not at all limited to young people, Whilden points out. The event's very timing, which hearkens back to the old days of Thursday night retail booms from General Electic pay days, is pleasantly nostalgic for many longtime residents.
"The story that I'll always remember was at the very first 3rd Thursday," Whilden recalls, "someone saw an older woman in the street crying, in happiness, because she had never thought she'd see North Street full of people like that again."
"From the beginning, 3rd Thursday has attracted more people than many of the events in some other communities," says Whilden, which she attributes to its effort to be as inclusive as possible.
"We didn't say it was the '3rd Thursday Arts and Culture Festival,'" Whilden said, "We've included street races, road races, skateboard demos, we have the National Alliance for Mental Illness [NAMI] Walk."
Another very popular civic component was the "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event last September, in which numerous officials and men from throughout the community marched North Street in red high-heeled shoes to raise funds for the Elizabeth Freeman Center.
This kind of diversity of things to see, eat, watch and participate has lead to crowds that Pittsfield Police have estimated to run as high as 10,000 people. Even without taking into account population and the fact that it takes place on a weeknight, this kind of turnout places it solidly in the top 40 percent of all arts festivals, as seen in this National Endowment for the Arts study.
In another survey by MASSInc on attitudes to arts and cultural events in Pittsfield and 10 other gateway cities, 82 percent of respondents said they believed such events attracted new business, 78 percent believe they help reduce crime, and 80 percent said they support government funding of such events.
In the case of 3rd Thursday, though, the event itself is orchestrated and marketed almost entirely without city funds. The core costs of entertainment and fairly extensive marketing are paid for though a combination of grant funding, vendor fees, and sponsorship from local business. The primary cost to the city is in employee time, from staff at the Office of Cultural Development to other city departments with which they coordinate to ensure public safety, most significantly the police department.
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn indicated that the expense of policing the monthly extravaganza can vary depending on the specific lineup each month.
"The size of the assigned detail ranges from 7-12 officers plus one supervisor," Wynn explained "depending on the month, the scope of the planned events, simultaneous events being staged at other downtown locations and the need to reroute traffic."
For planning purposes, the department assumes an average of 10 officers and one supervisor for approximately 4.5 hours each time, which at currently salary rates amounts to $1,386.41 per 3rd Thursday.
While over the course of the half-year this will amount to about $8,318, it is interesing to note that the entire cost for one night of police support is less than what has been made by certain food vendors in the past, including area nonprofits, many of whom use the 3rd Thursday series as a key fundraising platform (word is you don't want to miss the new reuben sliders from the Irish Sister City Committee).
Tonight's youth-themed festivities include four stages filled with dozens of young performers, works of art by area high school students, a mini carnival at Carr Hardware, the NAMI fundraising walk kicked off by Rep. Paul Marks, and dozens of other events and attractions.
Whilden promises more to come over the summer — next month's theme will be "Country in the City," (a prize will be given for best cowboy boots), September will see the return of men walking in heels, and more costumed fun in October.
And at some point this summer: the ultimate, long-awaited hot dog throwdown between Teo's and the Hot Dog Ranch... *a true Pittsfield controversy.*
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