Originally created 10/11/06

Offer might rescue event

Despite all that's happened, First Friday could go on without missing a beat.

The group that puts on Arts in the Heart is willing to rescue the monthly street festival and take it through the end of the year.

In a meeting Tuesday, members of the Greater Augusta Arts Council's executive committee voted unanimously to offer their services at least through Dec. 1 - covering the next two First Fridays.

Under the plan, the arts council would help with funding and event insurance.

Scheduling, logistics and organization would be handled by a steering committee made up of downtown merchants and stakeholders.

Director Brenda Durant said the festival is in line with the council's mission of supporting the arts, and what's good for downtown Augusta is good for everyone.

"I always liked First Friday, but it wasn't our event," Ms. Durant said at the committee meeting, held in the office of attorney and arts council board president Robert Mullins. "So it was kind of like sitting in somebody's kitchen and seeing them cooking and saying, 'What are you doing?' "

Ms. Durant presented the proposal to the committee after attending a meeting of downtown business owners in a back room at the Gallery on the Row on Broad Street.

In the meeting, organized by Imperial Theatre Executive Director Laura Plocha, business owners and other downtown supporters brainstormed on how to save Broad Street's biggest draw of the month. They agreed to ask the arts council to temporarily take over First Friday, giving the businesses time to find - or form - a nonprofit organization that could permanently run the festival.

"This is the opportunity for us as business owners to have more say, more input, more control," Ms. Plocha said.

Ms. Durant said the festival area should be taped off and shrunk to an area of Broad Street between Seventh and 11th streets. In both meetings, she said she doesn't understand how vendors and street bands have been staying on Broad Street past 10 p.m.

"No one comes to Arts in the Heart and starts selling yellow and blue sunglasses and, '(Gasp!) We don't know what to do about it,'" she said. "That's ridiculous."

First Friday was put in limbo when Main Street Augusta, which was funded by the Downtown Development Authority and organized First Friday, dissolved itself Sept. 26. The development authority then announced that it was dropping the festival to fund other events.

Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek suggested reducing the development authority's funding and giving the money to a group that will carry on with First Friday, but a motion to that effect failed in the last Augusta Commission meeting.

First Friday had been costing Main Street Augusta about $1,000 a month, mostly to pay off-duty sheriff's deputies to work security.

According to Ms. Plocha, Checkers and Firehouse Subs operator Andy Pye has offered to contribute up to $6,000 a year to keep it going. Arts council executive committee member Colin Austin said the council would be responsible for about $500 a month.

Business owners at Gallery on the Row expressed bitterness over the development authority's decision to drop First Friday just before the start of the holiday season. They were also irked that a petition has been circulating asking them to support what the authority has done.

Authority Chairman Paul King said the petition asks them to sign if they support the decision to turn First Friday over to the merchants who benefit and instead create new family events. He said he may present the petition to the Augusta Commission and he didn't want to disclose how many signatures he has.

"Response has been very, very strong," Mr. King said. "I haven't had a hard time getting people to sign up."

The downtown business owners will meet again Friday morning, giving them three weeks to put First Friday together if they accept the arts council's offer.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.Cutline Durant


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