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Wednesday, May 4,2011

Get There First

Promotion, transportation and alliteration put First Fridays on every tongue

by Lawrence Cosentino

 

You’re walking on air, snappily dressed, with your head
cocked and your mouth open. Theaters, nightclubs, restaurants and
martinis flash by in a blur of neon.

“Oh, Sidney, it’s all happening so fast!”


Greater Lansing doesn’t have a Radio City Music Hall or a
Stork Club. But if the massive First Fridays cross-promotion does what
it’s supposed to do, Friday night will feel like a stepping-out montage
from a 1930s movie musical — only with art galleries, appetizers, Zumba,
archery, bicycle repair, cheap burgers, high-end bottle service and
fourscore frills Busby Berkeley never thought of.


Other cities around the country have First Fridays, but
most are limited to a downtown business district or arts district.
Greater Lansing’s First Fridays program, which began with 50
participating businesses on April 1 and expands to more than 75 this
Friday, is more ambitious (see Page 10 for details).


Greater Lansing’s version aims to weave the attractions of
downtown Lansing, East Lansing, Old Town, REO Town and other far-flung
points of interest into one big web of fun, with free area-wide CATA bus
service providing the thread.


By combining free bus service system-wide (including
Spec-Trans, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.) with an unprecedented array of
discounts, free snacks, extended hours and special events from 75 arts
organizations, businesses, galleries and restaurants, First Friday
organizers hope to shrink greater Lansing into a hive of activity.


“We wanted to take down barriers for people to get to all
this stuff that is going on,” said Julie Pingston of the Greater Lansing
Convention and Visitors Bureau.


First Fridays have been a tradition in Raleigh, N. C., for
20 years, but they’re limited to the central business district.
Philadelphia’s First Fridays concentrate on the Old City area and its
40-odd art galleries.


“Here, we’re bridging two cities — Lansing and East
Lansing — and we’re bridging a region, not just the downtown city
blocks,” said First Fridays planner Christina Campbell. Campbell is a
senior vice president at Pace & Partners, the Lansing public
relations firm that works with CATA.


“The transportation component is huge,” Campbell said. “That’s what allows it to be regional.”


To fortify the event’s transportation backbone, CATA will
also jack up its Entertainment Express trolley service, the Michigan
Avenue connection between Lansing and East Lansing. The trolley usually
starts at 7 p.m. and runs every 30 minutes, but on First Fridays it will
start early (5:30 p.m.) and run twice as frequently, with service every
15 minutes.


“The transportation is a feature that some of the other destinations are a little envious of,” Pingston said.


When Campbell researched First Fridays in cities like
Raleigh, she found the events are especially good at nudging people into
trying something different.


“A good bar or a restaurant, on a Friday night, is already
going to be pretty busy,” Campbell said. “But First Fridays increase
the diversity of customers. They get people who might not normally come
out.”


In Raleigh, Campbell said, families showed up at
restaurants typically dominated by the business crowd. Regulars brought
friends and friends of friends.


Brittney Hoszkiw, director of the Old Town Commercial
Association, hopes First Fridays demonstrates Old Town is closer to
other parts of town than people think, via the Lansing River Trail and
the No. 14 bus line. She already saw people from other parts of town
discovering Lansing’s north side enclave of boutiques and galleries last
month.


The advent of First Fridays finds Old Town at a crest of
activity and growth. This Friday, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero will cut
the ribbon on seven new businesses. Hoszkiw said 20 new businesses have
opened in Old Town in the past year.


“Any opportunity we have to bring new faces to the
neighborhood is wonderful for us,” Hoszkiw said. “It hasn’t been a
difficult sell to the businesses.” 


Julie Pingston, a senior vice president at the Convention
and Visitors’ Bureau, said organizers would like to fold in more
“high-end cultural” events like the plays, concerts and drama that spice
up Philadelphia’s First Fridays.


“That part of the program is still developing,” Pingston said.


Cooley Law School and the Team Lansing Foundation, an
affiliate of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, will underwrite the
free bus fares through April 2012.


The promotional budget was augmented by in-kind donations
from a panoply of drumbeaters, from City Pulse and the Lansing State
Journal to Adams Outdoor Advertising.


From initial talks in February, beginning with CATA and
Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau, a full roster of “movers
and shakers” was assembled to maximize the event.


“All the acronyms in town are involved,” Pingston said.
The CVB, the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority,
Downtown Lansing, Inc., and the City of East Lansing are all working
behind the scenes to promote, organize and instigate more activities.


For the first 12 months, sponsors will fund Lansing First
Fridays. Campbell said that’s typical of such events, at least while
they get on their feet.


In time, organizers hope the public will come to expect
First Fridays, and businesses will see enough of a boost to move to a
fee-based system.


“We’ve got people representing all different sectors, from retail to dining to night life to the arts,” Campbell said.


“It’s going to get bigger and bigger. Next month the Lugnuts have a home game and they will join in.”

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