How Friday Fest beganBY SUSAN BURGESS
When a small cluster of people gathered outside PJ Clark’s on North Second Street in Fort Pierce 20 years ago, they had high hopes but no idea they were founding an event that would eventually draw thousands and be copied around the state.
“I’ll never forget the first time we held it,” said Friday Fest founder Tom Kindred Jr. “We had little more than myself, my wife and my parents standing out in the street. The band didn’t even show. So it was a pretty miserable event. The next morning I was outside cleaning up and a merchant came out and said, ‘Friday Fest really stunk.’”
Undeterred, they kept trying. Southern Eagle Distributing signed on as the event’s first sponsor. Pizza Hut became one of the first food vendors.
“Our company was thrilled to be a part of it,” said Paul Trabulsy, a vice president of Southern Eagle. “And once it caught on, it was something everyone planned on doing on the first Friday of the month.”
Kindred, who came up with the idea in 1989 after seeing Orlando’s successful street festivals, was Main Street of Fort Pierce’s first manager. He invented Friday Fest and ran it from 1989 until he left Main Street in 1991.
“We’ve come a long, long, long way from those early days,” he said. “It went from a few people to thousands of people coming downtown for it. Once it started to become successful there were people who wanted us to do it every week. But we were afraid we’d burn it out, so we stuck to our vision.”
Friday Fest moved from North Second Street to South Second Street where the festival organizers could use the Sunrise Theatre building for storing supplies before the theater was restored.
Linette Trabulsy ran Friday Fest for five years after Doris Tillman became Main Street’s new manager when Kindred left. Pam Gillette is the current Friday Fest manager.
“There was an explosion of growth in Fort Pierce and the county, and the event kept growing,” Linette Trabulsy said. “Friday Fest was moved to Melody Lane and the Marina Square Park when the Sunrise was being renovated. For a while we thought it might go back to Second Street but it had grown too much.”
Today, the Indian River forms a peaceful backdrop for the bustling 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. festival on the first Friday of each month. Vendors line up on both sides of Melody Lane, a band plays, the street and the park fill with people, and everyone socializes and enjoys a few hours of relaxation.
Crowds average 5,000 per event but have gone as high as 6,000, said Doris Tillman.
“One thing that is the most important about Friday Fest,” Tillman said, “is that it turned out to be one of the most effective economic tools for downtown. When it started we only had a couple of restaurants and now we have about 13.”
When Friday Fest closes at 8:30, restaurants that are open are likely to get a visit from some of the people leaving the event. “Friday Fest has done real well for me,” said Bryan Long, owner of The Yellowtail Grille on North Second Street.
Donna Burke, who manages both Cobb’s Landing and The Tiki restaurants on Avenue A by the marina, appreciates the extra business on Friday Fest evenings. “It’s great for us, and anything that brings people into the downtown is good for business,” she said. “It certainly has grown, and we hope it continues.”
Friday Fest’s value lies primarily in its ability to draw people into downtown and show them that it is an attractive place with interesting shops and restaurants, Tillman said, but the event itself isn’t a big moneymaker for Main Street and nets only about $25,000 a year. “I would say that over the past three years it’s brought in about 8.5 percent of our budget.
“The funds from Friday Fest are put into general revenue and used for the many things that Main Street does. Friday Fest has been going on for 20 years and the funds from this have been used on many of our projects, events, marketing studies, landscape projects and other things we do in downtown.”
Friday Fest has also spread to other cities.
“What is amazing is how many other cities have started Friday Fest,” Tillman said. “Some call it that, others change the name, but most of these cities are Main Street programs.”
John Wilkes, executive director of the Sunrise Theatre, was working for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota when he found out about Friday Fest, and promptly started a version of it in Sarasota.
“And we called it Friday Fest,” he said. “We had 3,000 people coming to it.”
Looking back down the 20 years since Friday Fest started with a small band of believers standing in the street with no band outside of a restaurant, hoping that a big crowd would come and discover Fort Pierce, Tom Kindred said, “We didn’t ever expect it to grow larger than our 2,500 people. What’s amazing to me, even today, is the number of people walking around the sidewalks in Fort Pierce in the evening. I just kind of have to smile and say, ‘You know, it worked!’ That will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Friday FestWhere: Melody Lane, Marina Square Park, on the Indian River in historic downtown Fort Pierce
When: First Friday of each month, year round, from 5:30-8:30 p.m.
What: Live musical entertainment, food, drinks, arts and crafts, activities for kids, and a chance to socialize and relax.
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