An outdoor stage, shaded by the surrounding buildings. Beer vendors, artists and food trucks lining the street under tents. Nearby businesses opening their doors to walk-in traffic. Music providing not only the source of entertainment, but the background noise as well as visitors walk around and socialize with friends and family.
This is the vision of Downtown Alive!, Downtown Sanford Inc.’s new summer concert series launched in May, replacing the long-standing Function at the Junction, held at nearby Depot Park. Whereas Function was a weekly concert at the stage and grassy area near the railroad tracks and former train depot downtown, Downtown Alive! Is a monthly series — held the third Thursday of each month through October — held on a blocked-off portion of Steele Street, allowing for easier access to much of Downtown Sanford’s businesses.
The idea was born from the success of downtown’s recent annual StreetFest celebrations, which brought in out-of-town and local bands to perform on Steele Street throughout the day, leading up to a nighttime fireworks display. While Downtown Alive! doesn’t have the draw of fireworks, it is hoping to match the atmosphere concert-goers have experienced at StreetFest, according to former Downtown Sanford Inc. Director Jennifer St. Clair.
“I think the very night of the first StreetFest, I had downtown merchants asking to do it again and more often,” St. Clair says. “Obviously, multiple events of that level just aren’t possible, but a monthly concert series certainly is. This is a great way to get that festival vibe people are craving more often.”
The new series kicked off on May 16 with surf rockers Rollin’ Dynamite, and the next concert is slated for June 20 with Appalachian funk rockers Dr. Bacon (complete schedule can be found on Page 27 of this publication). Jeff Towson, owner of Smoke & Barrel on Steele Street and event co-organizer, says DSI is trying to bring in bands that can “create an energetic and fun atmosphere that crowds can engage with.”
“I think Sanford is in the midst of a culture change in how people view our downtown,” Towson says. “It’s moving away from the mostly ‘dead after 5 p.m.’ downtown to more of a gathering place where people have a variety of entertainment options. This is something that has been slowly building over the years and is now gaining even more momentum. I think the greater goal here is a diverse and vibrant downtown that we can all enjoy and be proud of.”
St. Clair said in weighing any event DSI takes on, they look at the impact, reach and potential gain for downtown’s economy. While Function at the Junction was “very near and dear to our hearts,” she says downtown’s needs had outgrown that event.
“We wanted to take the next step by hosting an event that would bring more awareness of our amazing downtown businesses, put more people downtown during the event and have plenty of room to grow,” she says. “With Downtown Alive!, we are putting the crowd directly on the street where our shops and restaurants are. We are creating an environment that is more likely to attract new visitors. And we have an entire block to work toward filling up with attendees.”
She said she hopes those who loved Function at the Junction and were sad to see it go will give the new event a chance.
“I already knew the music would be fantastic because we have someone [Towson] who is excellent at finding talent,” St. Clair says. “Here’s what I didn’t know and what really got me excited for the future of Downtown Alive! — people were interacting. Instead of just setting up their lawn chairs and staying in one spot the whole time, there was movement, chatter, catching up, laughing, sharing a drink or food. Instead of folks leaving having enjoyed some good music, they left having enjoyed friendship and joy.”
“I think moving the series to Steele St. gives the event the opportunity to accommodate more people,” Towson adds, “with more of those people able to easily experience and see all that our downtown has to offer, without losing the family atmosphere we all want.”