LEBANON – It’s a vibrant, festive type of atmosphere.
Open-minded local residents exploring new things.
Merchants coming out from behind their counters.
Humans exploring healthy lifestyles.
People helping people.
From some humble beginnings, Downtown Lebanon’s First Fridays event is gaining steam. And what participants are discovering is that it’s just as much about the process as it is about the destination.
Ultimately, the goal of First Fridays is to inject more life into the city’s business district, to get more people downtown and to create a better financial climate for local merchants. But instead of focusing on their own individual enterprises, the local owners have focused on the overall culture of Lebanon’s downtown.
Pay attention to details, and the big things will take care of themselves.
“We do plan on doing this through the winter,” said John Tice, the interim director of the Downtown Business Improvement District. “We want to keep people buzzing. We’ve got a great momentum going right now.”
“It would be very easy for me to close my doors and charge people to come in,” said Scott Church, a world renowned photographer who operates a studio on Eighth Street. “This is not a business venture for me. I see this as a community effort. It’s something I want to do for my town. It’s something that needs to be done.”
“First Fridays started out as a small cultural event,” said John Bower, who operates the Domino’s Pizza shop at Fifth and Cumberland Streets. “It’s not just at Eighth and Cumberland any more. It’s spread throughout the downtown. People want to get involved and keep our money here. I just want to be part of a community.”
By all accounts, Downtown Lebanon’s October edition of First Fridays was a hit – in more ways than one.
Conducted on a near perfect night weather-wise, the event feature no less than 12 musical acts, a handful of art activities and exhibitions, merchants setting up stands outside their shops to and even outside vendors showing off their wares in a side alley. While local residents and business owners seem to be getting caught up in the spirit of First Fridays, but there is still much work to be done.
“People are looking for experiences,” said Tice. “You can come downtown and have a pizza and a beer any day. First Fridays integrates art and music to the atmosphere. You don’t want people wondering. You want to train people that we’re going to be here. You’ve got to set that expectation.”
“The purpose of First Fridays is to attract customers back downtown and let them see how great downtown is,” said Bower. “Our downtown is alive, it’s thriving. I think there’s a misconception that there’s really nothing to do downtown, that it’s not safe, that it’s dirty. That there’s no businesses coming in. Businesses only last if we support them. We want people to know how great these businesses are.”
“There’s a lot more positives going on in downtown Lebanon right now,” said Church. “There’s a lot of people trying to make the city better. That can only lead to good things for this town.”
First begun by the local arts council years ago, First Fridays has enjoyed varying amounts of success, more recently, through the efforts of people like Tice, Church and Bower. The key seems to be conducting it on a regular and consistent basis, getting like-minded business owners involved and getting the word out.
Once that happens First Fridays has the potential to be like no other event the city has ever experienced.
“In the past, I think it was a mixture of stores being open, along with events from the Council of Arts,” said Tice. “Right now, a lot of vendors have stepped up, which is critical to making it run. My goal is to have all the businesses involved, with something on the sidewalks to show life up and down the streets.
“Twenty-two thousand cars come through here a day,” added Tice. “They don’t all stop. But right now, we’re turning 22,000 heads. We’re showing signs of life down here. We’re trying to bring people to the businesses.”
“For quite some time, First Fridays had various successes and failures,” said Church. “The most recent uptakes have been going on for two or three years and the most serious ones have been since John (Tice) took over. The city has been adding to it and a lot of the businesses are participating. A lot more businesses are throwing their weight behind it. They want to be a part of the downtown.”
“It’s not really at the point where I’d like to see it,” said Bower. “I’d like to look up Cumberland Street and see the sidewalks packed. It’s definitely growing. I think we’re around 20 shops involved. I just hope it continues and continues to grow. We’re one of the few communities which still has a downtown.”
People remember a time in the 1960s and 70s, when downtown Lebanon was a bustling and vibrant place to shop.
But Downtown Lebanon’s isn’t attempting to return to that place. With that memory in mind, its goal is to create its own modern identity and character.
“It’s more than that,” said Tice. “Everybody wants it to be the way that it was. It isn’t going to happen. What’s happened to us has happened to hundreds of small towns. Malls took all the retail out of downtowns. But now all the younger folks want to live downtown, because of the proximity and the cool things going on downtown. That’s one of the reasons we’re embracing the arts. It creates that downtown experience.”
“If we want Lebanon to come back, we have to change things,” said Bower. “I would love to see Lebanon go in that direction, to have those major anchor stores. Another key is restaurants. We’ve got to have good eateries downtown. But Lebanon is definitely on its way.”
“Of course I remember that time,” said Church. “It’s something I’d like to see the downtown become again. I think there’s a lot of people who would like to see that also. If everyone is trying to make it a better place, it can’t possibly not be.”
So the face of shopping and spending continues to evolve and change. In many ways, Downtown Lebanon is looking to ride that current wave – or better yet, create its own new wave.
“I’d say consumers are shopping differently,” said Tice. “The trends have certainly changed. It’s happening everywhere. We have things downtown that you can’t buy on-line, stuff that you can’t find anywhere. We’re bringing cool to people.
“The only thing we need is for people to show up and take advantage of the things being made,” continued Tice. “We have great things happening in plain sight in Lebanon. If the city prospers the county will prosper, and if the county prospers everyone will prosper.”
“When we started our business, we looked at a lot of different places,” said Bower. “I thought a downtown location would be great for us and that we could attract the walking traffic. Our sales have doubled at our downtown location. It’s probably the best business decision I’ve ever made.”
“This is where I wanted to be,” said Church. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the downtown. I love this town. I love the people. I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
Article and photos by Jeff Falk.