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  3rd Thursday Celebrates 6 Years of Downtown Revelry
by Soapbox
11:22AM / Thursday, May 17, 2012
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Downtown Pittsfield reflects on the impact of 3rd Thursday on the 6th birthday of the popular street fair.
Crowd at August 2011 3rd Thursday


By Joe Durwin

Pittsfield, MASS- North Street shopkeepers expressed a range of cautious
optimism to beaming enthusiasm as they prepared Wednesday for the city's
6th year of 3rd Thursday festivities to begin.

"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 cancellation of this week's
kickoff had been reversed, as he was hoping for a "boost" in business,
which has been down lately as a result of the very construction over which
safety issues about this week's event arose.

"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% 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 Cultural Czarina.  "Unlike kids ten 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."

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 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 ten
thousand 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 $1386.41 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 (schedule).

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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