Summer Fairs Becoming Berkshire County Staple
File PhotoThird Thursdays in Pittsfield is entering its sixth year of bringing people to North Street.
But at their core, these events are about much more.
"DownStreet Art was developed as an economic revival plan,” said Jonathan Secor, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts director of special events who coordinates the 5-year-old North Adams arts festival. "The mission was to bring people downtown. The best way to do that is with really great art."
And, so far, the strategy has paid off, he said.
"We have averaged more than 20,000 new visitors to downtown North Adams," Secor said. "We count every single head that comes to a downtown gallery. There are close to 30,000 people downtown coming to events over the course of the summer... For a town of 13,000, that's a big deal."
But are they making deals for the art that is available?
"We don't know the exact dollar figure [being generated by DownStreet Art] because that's harder," Secor said. "But over the last four years, art sales have increased over 50 percent in the pop-up galleries we run. We do know that more than half a dozen new businesses have opened permanently on Main Street... We attribute that to creating a sense of life on Main Street."
Street fairs like DownStreet Art, Williamstown's Sundays at Six (rechristened Summer Sundays this year) and Pittsfield's Third Thursdays and First Friday Artwalk each strive to boost downtown businesses and often rely on those businesses to put their resources behind the fairs.
"It is a commitment for our businesses to stay open another three hours [for Third Thursdays]," said Megan Whilden, Pittsfield's director of cultural development. "What we have downtown are all locally owned businesses and except the drug stores at either end, which are chains. That means the owner either has to stay late or pay someone else to stay and keep the doors open. They have to have faith and be committed to it."
So far, she said, that faith has been rewarded.
The monthly Third Thursdays, which runs from May through October, is celebrating its sixth year. Whilden has a lot of anecdotal evidence of the event's impact on Pittsfield but little in the way of concrete numbers.
"I can tell you at one point we did a brief survey of downtown businesses a couple of years ago, asking if Third Thursdays increased their business, and 100 percent of them said yes," she said. "We also know that in the past six to eight years about 50 new restaurants, shops and cultural hot spots have opened downtown...That's related to a lot of factors, all contributing to the perception that downtown Pittsfield has been rebranded as a dynamic place to be. Third Thursdays is part of that."
What is missing is empirical evidence showing how big a part is attributable to the street fair.
"We have talked about doing an economic impact study, but this office is always understaffed and overcommitted," Whilden said. "We're primarily committed to doing things, not evaluating things, which is problematic. It's definitely something we want to do."
There are a lot of fairs to keep track of in Pittsfield. Third Thursday may be the most high-profile event but it shares the summer calendar with the July's Polish Family Picnic and Pittsfield City Hoopla, August's Pittsfield Ethnic Fair and Grecian Festival and September's Festival of Sharing Roots, not to mention the First Friday Art Walk, which started this month and is envisioned as a year-round happening.
By contrast, Williamstown has a more modest schedule with the Summer Sundays, which were conceived in 2009 as a way to draw Williamstown Theatre Festival-goers down to Spring Street after Sunday's matinee performances.
Although the event was originally named Sundays at Six, it soon became apparent that the festivities needed to get under way earlier. This year, artisan vendors will begin setting up their tents as early as 2 p.m., said organizer Paula Consolini, Williams College's coordinator of experiential education.
That is not the only change in store for the event, which is scheduled for Sundays, July 8-29.
"We keep tweaking the experience because we're learning continuously what works and what doesn't," Consolini said. "This year we're making a shift because people have been concerned that having the event at the bottom of the street is not drawing enough people. So this year we're closing the top of the street down to Walden Street and a little bit around the corner.
File PhotoJonathan Secor said that Downstreet Art has attracts more than 30,000 people to downtown North Adams.
Sundays at Six has historically drawn 300 to 500 people to Spring Street on any given Sunday, Consolini said. The influx has helped businesses in Williamstown's downtown during what she describes as a "challenging transition time."
"There's been new energy, and the folks running those businesses have been excited the prospect of the new exposure [Summer Sundays] will provide," Consolini said.
Each year, volunteers have conducted brief surveys of the festival-goers in Williamstown. While the majority of attendees are town residents or second home-owners, the event draws people "from all over," Consolini said. The largest number of out-of-towners come from New York's Capital District.
The goal is for those visitors — wherever they call home — keep coming back.
"That is huge," Consolini said. "I think Library Antiques noticed that — even if people don't buy things that night, they're in a positive mood when they visit your shop, they see something and say, 'That's something I'd like to get.' Traffic into your store is the first step to people deciding that you have something they might want to buy... if you pique their interest, later they might follow up. They wouldn't know you had a certain item if you weren't open for them to browse."
Secor said it also is working in North Adams, where the challenge has been to capture some of the audience for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and redirect it toward North Adams' Main Street.
"If 120,000 visitors go to Mass MoCA, how do we get 10, 20, 30 percent of that?" he said.
Mass MoCA supports DownStreet Art by promoting the festival in its lobby and on its blogs and Facebook site, Secor said. The downtown businesses that are intended to benefit from the festival provide financial and in-kind support.
"Twenty downtown businesses sponsor DownStreet Art, and they do it because they see the effect on their bottom line," Secor said. "Jack's Hot Dogs is not going to give us $5,000, but they do what they can."
File PhotoWilliamstown's Sundays at Six, which has since been renamed, takes a "Village Beautiful" to put on each year.
In Williamstown, it takes a "Village Beautiful" effort to keep Summer Sundays alive, Consolini said.
"It's a lot of volunteer work, support from grants, the Fund for Williamstown, area banks, the local cultural council, the college pitches in, Where'd You Get That pitches in a lot, Berkshire Direct has been the primary sponsor with all this publicity work for free, Judy Giamborino at the Chamber of Commerce, Sandra Thomas at Images helps us out with the use of electricity and space," she said. "Our challenges are growing because we have to do things like arrange for porta-potties because of people coming down. But we're building commerce and community, and we're also a vehicle for non-profits to showcase themselves."
And Consolini said she is living proof that events like hers help local businesses.
"I've been to DownStreet Art, and I did stop into one of the [North Adams] shops, and I did buy something," she said. “So I know it happens."
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