Encouraging Core Energy

Downtown boosters try to re-create some of the magic of the old Downtown Saturday Nights events

Several months ago, at the end of a day-long meeting of downtown stakeholders about how to revitalize Tucson's core, somebody asked Donovan Durband of the Tucson Downtown Alliance what the next step was. He said, "Go right out and patronize our downtown businesses."

Unfortunately, it was 5 p.m. on a Friday. Most downtown businesses were closed. So much for a call to action.

Since January, though, the TDA has taken a $50,000 infusion from the city government and created a series of mostly nighttime street events called Downtown Saturdays. The next one is 6 p.m. to midnight this weekend, May 21. Held on Stone Avenue between Broadway Boulevard and Congress Street, as well as on the temporarily vacant Thrifty lot, it highlights restaurants and other businesses that are actually open at night, plus offers two outdoor stages presenting--among many other things--Al Foul's rock and twang one-man show, R&B from George Howard and The Roadhouse Hounds, Colorado hip-hop band Dialogue, former Captain Beefheart guitarist Moris Tepper and his band, plus--at the Thrifty lot--plenty of Nimbus beer.

If you've been here since the 1990s, this may remind you of the long-dormant monthly Downtown Saturday Nights organized by the Tucson Arts District Partnership, Inc., an organization now cut off from city funding and a much-weaker player downtown. But at the event's height, Downtown Saturday Night jammed Congress and intersecting streets with pedestrians wandering from one art gallery to another, dropping into restaurants and bars, inspecting crafts vendors at the Ronstadt Transit Center and taking in a bounty of street entertainment.

"Downtown Saturday Night lost some of its energy as the galleries and retail base declined in the late '90s," Donovan Durband says diplomatically.

"Downtown Saturdays will be more formally programmed than DSN was. The idea is to bring visitors to downtown for an entertaining, safe and hopefully enriching experience, showcasing diverse, great mostly local talent, and encourage the merchants to take advantage of that. We'd like to make our guests realize they can have a safe and fun time downtown and that they can come back, find a place to park (not difficult at all, especially after 5 p.m. and on weekends) and patronize the restaurants and other businesses. We want Tucsonans who only come downtown occasionally to get in the habit of coming here."

Most of the logistical work is being handled by Tucson Downtown Alliance production manager Barbara Zelano, with technical matters supervised by Paul Weir of the fire-art troupe Flam Chen.

Zelano arrived in Tucson three years ago after a couple of decades in Olympia, Wash., where she worked as a musician, producer, director, writer, marketer, and creator and manager of a performance venue. "I'm not just a party planner," she points out. "We're trying to build on something significant here, and I admit it's hard, because in the past there was a more vibrant gallery scene and more vibrant restaurant and bar scene, whereas now we've got almost zero major galleries in the core, and too many empty storefronts separating the businesses that are still here. So the challenge is, how do we work with existing businesses to increase their patronage on these evenings? How do we not piss the merchants off by closing streets or not closing streets?"

One answer, she and Durband think, is to shift the events from one block to another as the series progresses. Another is not to lock onto, say, only the first or third Saturday of a month, or to restrict events to evenings.

"We'll complement existing events when it makes sense and create new events when there seems to be a void on the downtown calendar," says Durband. "We'll try to build up events like the Downtown Parade of Lights during the holidays, as well as unique local events like Dillinger Days and All Souls' Procession. We're kicking around some ideas about Halloween downtown and building on the festivities surrounding Tucson's birthday (she's 230 years old this Aug. 20) by making the Old Pueblo's history more fun and accessible."

TDA will exhaust the last of its special city funding with its June 18 event, and is looking for sponsors and volunteers to keep the series going into the fall.

Whereas many such events, here and elsewhere, have been touted as gifts to the community and essential to the survival of Art and Culture, Zelano freely admits that a primary goal of Downtown Saturdays is to boost downtown businesses.

"This is a way for TDA to give back to the merchants," she says. "They support TDA, and so far, the most visible things that have come out of that support are cleaner, more secure streets. This is the next level, creating some thing for the downtown area. When I got here three years ago, I could see that downtown had been destroyed by urban renewal, but I could also see that it was becoming something. Downtown Saturdays will help that along."

After this year's scattered events, including the Dillinger Days street Festival in January, an evening in March similar to this weekend's affair, and an April kids' day, local merchants seem cautiously optimistic.

"The March event was a few blocks west of me, but I did see quite a bit of foot traffic," says Ed Cobos, who owns Mejico/Maxico Imports and Taco Centro at the corner of Congress and Fifth Avenue. "I've just been here eight months, and after the last event, I had some customers who came back during regular business hours to shop because they didn't want to carry anything while they were having fun."

Teresa Terry, co-owner of the La Placita café called Scooters, doubts that Downtown Saturdays will lure new people to her shop, which depends on the patronage of downtown workers and TCC conventioneers. But she has bought a cart from which she sells espresso and pastries during the events.

"It's good exposure, and it's fun," she says. "I don't think they can re-create what we had happening with Downtown Saturday Night, but I don't think they're trying to. The old effort was a blast, but there were more businesses downtown, more clubs that were not clientele-specific, lots of places you could get a drink, walk around for blocks, mingle with lots of people on the street, really engage the community. The new events are just that, an event. They bring in performers, and they are space-limited."

Zelano believes the old atmosphere could return, if on a smaller scale. "We can create a sense of place with great performances on the stages, and get the existing merchants and bars connected so you can create the kind of 'walk' that used to happen during Downtown Saturday Nights. We've got to focus on the advantages to the merchants and restaurants; otherwise it's just a big party." And at some point, the party's over.

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