Friday, May 27, 2022

City staff halt Downtown Alive, leave organizers scrounging to salvage free concert series

Downtown Wilmington overlooking the Chestnut Street library where Downtown Alive concert series was going to be held until city staff revoked the conditional permit. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON — Fifteen weeks of free music in downtown Wilmington will not move forward as planned. 

The Downtown Alive concert series — operated and managed by local promoter Conan Anderson of Son of Ander LLC and backed by the Downtown Business Alliance — was slated to kick off in two weeks. The bands were booked, the beer, wine and food trucks almost secured, and appropriate logistics finalized to hoist a stage on Chestnut Street between 2nd and 3rd. 

READ MORE: City OKs alcohol sales during new downtown concert series

ALSO: Downtown Alive announces lineup for its free concert series

A couple thousand people were expected to show up weekly to enjoy a mix of tribute and original acts as part of the free event. But city staff decided on May 10 to halt operations. On May 12 Amy Beatty, the city’s community services director, sent a letter to all parties involved, noting it was pulling the conditional permit.

Wilmington City Council voted unanimously April 19 to move forward with the series, allowing alcohol sales on the blocked-off street from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays. According to City of Wilmington spokesperson Jennifer Dandron, the permit issued for the series — specifically to Anderson, the applicant — came with the “assurance” that promoters would notify adjacent properties about the events.

“The applicant failed to communicate with appropriate personnel at those properties,” Dandron wrote in a statement, “and was unable to satisfy that the concert series would not produce an undue burden.”

In the letter, Beatty explained: “The City has the discretion, per policy adopted by Wilmington City Council on January 22, 2019, to disallow any event if it will create an undue burden on a particular geographic area or the City as a whole.”

Noise levels from the concert, she said, would impede events happening at the nearby Cape Fear Club. She also said it would “potentially” affect Thalian Hall.

Port City Daily reached out to Anderson for comment but was informed he couldn’t speak on the matter currently. DBA liaison Chris Andrews, who has been working with Anderson to navigate logistics, told Port City Daily notifications were handled for weeks now. 

Andrews has planned his fair share of events in town. He helped DBA with the 2020 Downtown Alive dining program, and for years has organized downtown’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival, Rims on the River and American Craft Walk. 

The city required organizers to send details about the concert series four weeks ahead of the first event — scheduled for May 28. The notice is required to go to any “establishment that will be blocked, detoured, or heavily inconvenienced,” policy details.

Appropriate forms of notification include mailed postcards, handing out literature to the businesses, as well as phone calls, emails or in-person conversations. The policy also encourages event organizers to utilize social media, which Downtown Alive has been doing since April 4.

“Failure to comply with these requirements will result in a reduced event evaluation score,” Dandron said.

The heart of the event would have taken place between the Chestnut Street library, the city-owned Harrelson Building — five stories of office space, mostly empty on weekends — and the Cape Fear Club, the oldest operating men’s club in the state.

County emails show the library was notified by the organizers and discussions were underway to promote services to the influx of concertgoers that would be on the block. 

“I just got off the phone with the Event Producer for the Downtown Alive Concert Series,” librarian Jimi Raider wrote to county leaders. “There are possibilities for us along with this, such as setting up a library booth for some of the shows, banners on display advertising the library or library programs (such as Sounds of Wilmington). Saturday pre-concert programs might be a possibility — how fun would it be to have a Led Zeppelin lip-synch contest before the ZOSO show? Is that legal?… I don’t know.” 

According to the city, the Cape Fear Club, located across from the library, submitted a complaint, stating they were unaware of the event following the April 19 vote city council made. When the private club actually protested is unclear.

“We reached out to the Cape Fear Club and tried to have a sit-down with them,” Andrews said. “But they never responded to us.”

Port City Daily called the Cape Fear Club for comment and learned, according to a voice message, its operating hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In other words, the club is not even open during the concert series, unless special events are hosted. No one from the club responded to Port City Daily as of press.

One block down from the series is a Western Union store, Copper Penny and the post office. DBA and the promoters weren’t directed to notify any business other than those immediately affected in the 200 block of Chestnut, according to Andrews.

Copper Penny owner Drew DeVoid told Port City Daily his concerns revolve around compounding outside factors affecting the restaurant’s bottom line. Construction is underway nearby due to the city’s North Front Streetscape Project.

“It’s already limiting traffic flow,” DeVoid said. “Closing off the top of our street on the busiest day of the week for us would have further burdened the ability to access our restaurant, which could have potentially led to a decrease in revenue considering the hindrance of accessing our block.”

According to city staff, Thalian Hall — on the east side of 3rd Street, about 300 or so feet across the way from the concerts — opposed the series as well. Andrews said Thalian was a business that didn’t fall under notification requirements they were given.

“Staff spoke with Thalian Hall, who objected saying the events could cause a negative experience for their patrons and rental clients,” Dandron confirmed.

Justin Smith, artistic director for Opera House Theater Company — the biggest local renter of Thalian Hall throughout the year — has four shows planned through September. Three would take place at Thalian at the same time as the Downtown Alive concert series.

Smith said he initially asked DBA president Terry Espy, who also serves on the board of Thalian Hall, about sound carrying to the venue. When he found out the stage would face 2nd Street — away from Thalian — his hesitations diminished.

“I’ve been in the business long enough to know you can stand behind a stage when musicians are playing and have a full-blown conversation without problems,” Smith said, “so I felt pretty confident there was not going to be an issue with our shows at Thalian Hall. … It’s equipped to keep sound out.”

Smith said he doesn’t think it’s a good look on the city to approve the series and then revoke its status.

“It’s disappointing and sets a precedent,” he said. “It takes time, money and effort, even in the planning process of events.”

The Downtown Alive Concert Series was supposed to take place Saturdays from Memorial to Labor day in the 200 block of Chestnut Street but city staff revoked its permits earlier this week. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Why Chestnut Street?

According to Andrews, the Chestnut Street location was suggested by city parking manager Chance Dunbar. 

“Chance was the staff point originally and brought it before council because the staff member who usually handles special events was out on leave,” Dandron confirmed, though she couldn’t verify if Dunbar proposed Chestnut Street.

For years, the former Downtown Sundown series, hosted by Wilmington Downtown Inc., was held on the Riverwalk. With ongoing construction keeping it off-limits in recent years, the Second Street Parking Lot on the corner of Market had become the de facto spot. Then, WDI halted Sundown due to Covid in 2020 and 2021, and announced in March it would discontinue performances. 

When DBA picked up the baton for the series in April, Andrews told Port City Daily he didn’t want to set up on Second Street.

“We had to put our St. Patrick’s Day festival over there,” he said a month ago. “It just doesn’t have the right cool vibe — plus, it’s a big asphalt lot with no shade whatsoever, a problem when you start getting into July and August.”

Also, the city would lose upward of $20,000 in parking revenue by blocking off the entire Second Street Parking Lot, according to previous Port City Daily reporting.

Only seven parking spots would have been affected on Chestnut, Andrews said. Event promoters planned to pay for the time the spots were not operational. The deck next door to the library and another located south on Second would have provided sufficient parking.

When the city revoked the Downtown Alive permits, Dandron said it looked at alternative locations for the series. One was a block over, along Princess Street, yet business owners there also echoed concerns about possible negative impacts, such as road closures reducing foot traffic, she explained. 

“Adjacent event venues also expressed concern that concert noise could cause a poor experience for their patrons and rental clients,” Dandron added.

Beatty indicated in the letter sent to the organizers this week that a series of this caliber may be better suited to less-populated areas on the outskirts of downtown proper. 

“DBA special events played an important role in drawing people to downtown Wilmington at a time when tools like special events were key to revitalization,” Beatty wrote. 

She also surmised, according to a report from WHQR, business growth was stronger and multiple entertainment options were more readily available compared to years ago when Downtown Sundown, first sponsored by DBA, began.

“I think a key takeaway here may be that this type of event has exceeded its usefulness,” Beatty wrote in a city email, the news outlet revealed. “The original goal was to draw people downtown to increase business. People are now already downtown, and the feedback we are getting from businesses is that this type of event decreases foot traffic into their shops.”

“I think that’s a premature statement,” Andrews said in response. “There is this impression that businesses downtown are all flourishing. Covid took two years right off our plate.”

Beatty pointed toward Castle Street or the Brooklyn Arts District as better options. She noted in the letter: “Now that downtown is heavily populated by residents and guests, the new and emerging businesses in these districts may be eager to host Downtown Alive.”

As of Thursday, Andrews said relocation to those areas would be tricky. Primarily, parking would be an issue. 

“What kind of effect is that going to have on a neighborhood who already [is] usually strapped with five parking spaces out front of their homes?” he asked. “Chestnut was perfect for so many reasons, especially with parking decks flanking both sides of the event.”

In the end, DBA is not in charge of where and if the series will continue; Anderson holds the final decision.  

DBA’s support of the event came with the intention to spur more foot traffic and exposure to downtown. The membership-driven nonprofit, founded in 1956, exists to “unite, promote and support downtown Wilmington businesses.” It would have received partial proceeds from alcohol sales to put back into programs that fulfill its mission.

“If Conan decides to move it to Carolina Beach, for instance, we would be out,” Andrews said, as that would not be within DBA’s purview. 

He confirmed promoters are trying to salvage the series downtown still, if at all possible.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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