NewsNews Features

Downtown Events Take Planning and Persuasion

Among the bars, restaurants and boutiques in downtown Athens, there’s one missing link keeping it from drawing a larger audience: open public space.

As a result, events in downtown that draw thousands—namely, the Terrapin Twilight Criterium and AthFest—are only possible by closing down streets to accommodate the crowds. The alternative—holding an event in one of the privately owned parking lots—is also difficult, according to an official with Prestige Parking, which leases the lots around downtown.

“It’s just too much for me, I guess,” says Serra Ferguson, who wanted to move her arts and crafts market to a downtown street after starting it in a parking lot. The form for a street closure permit worries her, she says, since most of her efforts in organizing the festival go into finding and curating vendors, not in diagramming maps showing trash cans and fire department access. “I’m just afraid of screwing this up and not doing it again, so I want to be super prepared,” Ferguson says.

Parking Problems

Last year’s Food Truck Festival, held in the block of College Avenue in front of City Hall, initially inspired Ferguson to move her event to a similar spot. But the food truck event, organized by a class of graduate students in the College of Environment and Design at UGA, had a team working on various aspects of the event, according to Liz Stewart, who handled graphic design and advertising.

Ferguson’s event began as the Indie Craftstravaganzaa, but was re-christened as Indie South Fair when it moved to the parking lot of Ben’s Bikes after a dispute over the use of the downtown parking lot. The new location, off Broad Street, a few blocks west of downtown, was just far enough removed that her vendors noticed the difference.

Prestige Parking leases privately owned parking lots in the downtown area, managing parking on either a nightly basis or by selling monthly or game-day permits, according to its website. A representative of Prestige Parking says she doesn’t think an event at one of the privately owned parking lots, managed by Prestige, would be a possibility, citing logistical and liability concerns. 

Another possible option for a large, open event space downtown is the parking lots along North Jackson Street. But Kathryn Lookofsky, director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, says those lots are leased monthly to downtown office workers and business owners. “It might be an option,” she says of holding an event in the parking lots near Hotel Indigo. “The only problem is the lots are leased out. Our businesses are open on the weekends. It’s not impossible, and sometimes we have to move people, but it’s a huge inconvenience.”

The issue of public space is also part of the master plan for downtown, set to be revealed in May or June. University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley, who is leading the team hired by the ADDA to create the master plan, says the idea has been on their radar from the start. Ideas include closing off College Avenue from Clayton to Broad streets, re-designing the block around City Hall to accommodate for more public green space, or straightening North Jackson Street, adding walkable green space and public park areas along either side.

On the Street

Moving from parking lots to the streets requires a 14-page form that’s approved by multiple city departments.

Angel Helmly, permit coordinator for ACC’s Central Services department, which processes the street closure forms, says applicants shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the paperwork. There is a $25 processing fee, and the city may charge for use of electricity, water or other services. 

“We only charge what it costs us,” she says. “The only other expense is if they pay for electrical services. Depending on the time of day, they may have to pay for the block’s parking meters, so they may have to pay for lost revenue.”

The street closing ordinance allows an applicant to make a request up to a year in advance. Technically, the city needs at least 60 days to process the request, but depending on the event, Helmly says a request can be made in less time. It all depends on the number of departments that need to sign off on the request—the health department needs to OK food sales, or the fire department needs to approve a beer tent, for example. “If it were something like Twilight, we can’t do that in two weeks,” she cautions. “The [application] should be submitted at least 60 days prior to the event.”

Lookofsky thinks it isn’t too difficult to get a street closure permit. Her concern is the complexity of the event and what it takes to pull it off. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how much goes into an event, how much goes in on the front end,” she says. “It takes months of planning to make a successful event.”

The ADDA and other agencies want to encourage events downtown. Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, adds that a successful event draws people not only from Athens but from surrounding areas.

“The more people you can draw from outside Athens, the larger economic impact you’re going to have,” she says. “They’re not just spending money on a night in hotels, they’re spending money at restaurants, and they’re also going to spend more in the retail store.”

This year, as it has for nearly 35 years, the Athens Human Rights Festival will fill up College Square during the first weekend of May. About a mile away, on the same weekend, Ferguson’s Indie South Fair will also welcome vendors and visitors. (Artists can apply to be vendors through March 24.) This year, she has a new home for her fair, in a private parking lot on Chase Street between Boulevard and Prince Avenue. The new venue offers a place for the upstart event to get a foothold before moving to the streets, if that’s where the Indie South Fair leads her.

“I’m going to keep it going, regardless,” Ferguson says. “I just wish my energy could be focused on making it better each time rather than fumble over the basics of where it’s going to be… My vision for this show is that it’s in town, it’s visible, and it’s accessible.”