Monday, July 4, 2022

No reviving Downtown Alive concerts: Organizers, city fail to relocate free series

Wilmington's Downtown Sundown 2018 summer concert series returns this year to the Riverwalk with a full lineup of cover bands. (Port City Daily/File photo)
Wilmington’s Downtown Sundown from 2018 — a popular summer concert series Downtown Alive was hoping to pick up the baton and carry on. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — After scouting multiple locations to try and revive a 13-week concert series — originally slated to kick off this Memorial Day weekend — organizers are officially pulling the plug on Downtown Alive.

Produced by Son of Ander LLC and sponsored by Downtown Business Alliance, the music series has faced hurdles over the last few months.

Council first voted unanimously on April 19 to allow onstreet alcohol sales to take place Saturdays between Memorial and Labor days in the 200 block of Chestnut Street — the first location suggested and approved by the city. Partial proceeds from sales would  benefit DBA, which promotes and advocates for downtown businesses. 

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

ALSO: City OKs alcohol sales during new downtown concert series

AND: Downtown Alive announces lineup for its free concert series

By May 10, city staff reversed course, claiming the series couldn’t prove it wouldn’t burden nearby businesses. They maintained organizers hadn’t properly informed the businesses of its operations on Chestnut between 2nd and 3rd — namely the Cape Fear Club. More so, it said it had received complaints from others about the concerts’ potential noise levels and increase in crowds hindering business.

City staff revoked Downtown Alive’s conditional permit after almost a month of organizers securing vendors and bands. Since then, the city has worked with organizers and DBA to find a new location that would still allow the free concerts to carry on.

According to DBA president Terry Espy, the organizers even considered doing a roving series. The idea was to set up in various areas across downtown, such as on Water Street in front of River Place, and then move on to Castle Street, the Soda Pop District, and then down toward South Front.

“George Taylor was very aggressive and open, saying, ‘Come on [to Greenfield Street], we’ll use TRU Colors up here,” Espy said of the brewery owner. The developers of the Soda Pop district even suggested putting it indoors in one of their warehouses, she added.

“But for the promoters to come up with fencing and electrical and porta-potties at a different location each week, it was really beyond the scope of what we planned this year,” Espy said. “It was far more costly than holding it in one place every week.” 

Another location was also in the works, according to recent city emails. Coordination specialist RT Jones sent a map showing a blocked-off Market Street from the riverfront to Front Street, suggesting DBA start reaching out to businesses to make sure the series would work in that location. Rescheduled dates were planned for Saturdays, June 25 through Sept. 3, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

The street — aligned with Floriana, Caprice Bistro, Edge of Urge, Varnish, Glenn’s Tattoos and Finkelstein, among others — would have been completely closed off for a couple thousand concertgoers to meander and hear live music from tribute acts and original bands.

“It just didn’t work out,” Espy said. 

After DBA liaison Chris Andrews and promoters began knocking on doors to notify business owners along Market, Espy said her phone started ringing. 

“A lot of them said, ‘If we end up with 2,000 people here, it’s going to kill us,’” Espy explained. “I told them that’s why we need to hear from you — DBA’s mission is to enhance the businesses downtown, certainly not to impede business.”

As of Thursday, Espy said DBA has withdrawn its support for the series to continue in 2022. Son of Ander LLC could pursue the event elsewhere, even outside of downtown, but owner Conan Anderson wrote in a message to Port City Daily: “Not moving forward without DBA.”

Instead, Espy said the organization is holding off until renovations are complete at the federal courthouse, the original location of its predecessor, Downtown Sundown. Downtown Alive was slated to pick up the baton where the former series left off; it was run by Wilmington Downtown Inc. from 2005 through 2019, mostly on Water Street. 

“Bill [Mayor Saffo] did work hard to get it in that zero block,” Espy said.

The courthouse has been undergoing repairs since Hurricane Florence, and once they’re complete, she said DBA may re-approach launching it in front of the courthouse steps along Water Street.

However, it’s unclear if that could happen. The same businesses that complained about blocking off Market Street are within a couple hundred feet or so from the federal courthouse.

Andrews and Espy said there is no metric or formula the city follows to prove undue burden — in other words, if 80% of businesses notified are for the music series, it doesn’t mean a permit is necessarily approved. If one business complains, such as Cape Fear Club, apparently that’s enough to halt operations.

(Port City Daily reached out to the city for comment but didn’t hear back ahead of press; the article will be updated with a response upon reply.)

DBA will take the money it would have spent on banners for the music series and put it toward promoting storefronts impacted by construction due to the city’s North Front Streetscape Project.

“We had a meeting last night and heard from some of them in the area that they’re seeing a reduction in foot traffic,” Espy said.

The business alliance is investing in signs to hang on the fencing around the construction site to direct more people to the shops and restaurants on North Front Street between Chestnut and Walnut. DBA is also promoting a summer cash giveaway in the block at participating shops.

Consumers who get a postcard after a purchase in any amount — “it can be a cup of coffee,” Espy said — can fill it out and drop it into a box in the Cotton Exchange. DBA will hold a $300 weekly drawing, slated to begin the second week in June and wrapping sometime in September; $200 will go to the customer and $100 will go to the business he or she shopped in.

The concert series’ first location along Chestnut Street, a block up from the construction zone, was chosen specifically to bring more bodies to the area. It is removed far enough from the businesses to not hurt them and hopefully usher in more people to make a day out of being in downtown restaurants and shops ahead of the show. 

“It was the perfect location,” Andrews told Port City Daily a few weeks ago, surrounded by a city-owned building with offices that are empty on the weekends, the library which closes at 5 p.m. and the Cape Fear Club, closed on Saturdays. Hardly any residents are in the immediate vicinity.

“It’s a shame,” Espy said. “The public really seemed to want it, the families especially who can’t afford some of the national shows.”


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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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