By Taylor Hawk
As you may have heard, Main Street Marion will no longer be participating in First Friday’s. If you’re interested in learning more about why we made this decision after years of careful consideration, or want to know what we are focusing on for the future of downtown Marion, please, read on.
Crack open any textbook on the subject of Community Development, and sustainability will almost certainly be mentioned numerous times. The idea of sustainability is creating something that is lasting, that does not need to be built from scratch and fully funded again and again, year after year. First Friday’s were simply not sustainable for us. Every year, the Main Street Marion Executive Director would spend hundreds of hours planning, coordinating, and implementing the event, and every year, we would dedicate a huge portion of our limited budget to these four annual events (we’ll go deeper into the money issue in a moment). As a Community and Economic Development organization, we were faced with a dilemma: Should we act on sound development principles, or act out of fear and continue the status quo?
2) Mission Alignment
As we pondered the decision, one big question continued to arise: “How do First Friday’s help us accomplish economic development in downtown Marion?” For years now, First Friday’s have been located by the riverfront, away from the square and the majority of the downtown small businesses that we want to see flourish. In fact, small business owners in the downtown area have complained about First Friday’s for years, referencing the overwhelming majority of vendors which are not even Marion-based businesses, let alone our downtown constituents. We came to the realization that we were actually draining our downtown of financial resources by bringing in outside vendors to do business with the people that live and work in downtown Marion. Because of this realization, we recognized that First Friday’s were not helping us accomplish our mission of economic development.
There have been quite a few numbers thrown around about how much First Friday’s cost, and how much the City of Marion has given Main Street Marion. In 2015, the city of Marion contributed an unprecedented amount of $65,000 to Main Street Marion, however, our organization was contractually obligated by the city to spend a large portion of that money on First Friday’s. In fact, for the sake of transparency, here is a screen shot from the First Friday portion of our official operating statement for 2015:
If you add all of those numbers up, you get nearly $25,000. As stated earlier, $65,000 was unprecedented, and thousands more than the city has ever given our organization. Why such a large amount? Well, the rest of the money was considered back pay, as the city had been promising to contribute smaller amounts in previous years, but had not done so. Meaning that our organization had to fund First Friday’s solely on money from sponsors and individual supporters of Main Street Marion throughout years. As a result, MSM had to operate at a financial loss during much of that time. On a year to year basis, the majority of our operating budget is based on the contributions of citizens and businesses that are passionate about the downtown area, not the city.
Now, some might say for a city with a budget of millions of dollars, $25,000 per year is fairly insignificant. We would argue, if used correctly, it is a very significant amount. Take downtown Kokomo for example. Downtown Kokomo is very much on the rebound. That is thanks, in large part, to the façade renovation program they have implemented in the last few years. This program has a cost to the city of around $7,500 per building. This means that, in Marion, the $25,000 cost of last year’s First Friday events we were contractually obligated to spend, could have helped to renovate over three façades in our downtown area. That is a significant change with a more permanent and further reaching impact than four evenings per year.
The truth is, we could continue to spend another $25,000 on First Friday’s this year and next year, and squander the whole $65,000 given to us by the city last year. However, we believe by using our funds for beautification efforts, such as large scale murals and beautiful plants; and infrastructure improvements, such as façade renovations, we will have a much broader and longer-lasting impact on downtown Marion than First Friday events can acheive.
4) Ultimately, Einstein was a smart guy:
Many have brought attention to the fact that First Friday’s have been an institution for 17 years. Another way to frame this is: we have been dedicating huge resources to First Friday’s every summer for 17 years, expecting it to change downtown Marion. So again, as a Community and Economic Development organization, we were faced with a dilemma: Should we act on sound development principles, or act out of fear and continue the status quo?
Ultimately, we have listened to our downtown stakeholders, and concluded that Marion is begging for change. We saw it in the attitudes of voters in the last Mayoral election. We see it in our downtown roundtables and city meetings. We could have given into fear and stuck to the way things have always been, but we have hope for Marion. Hope that, over the next few decades, we can help make a better city for future generations.
Rest assured if you enjoy First Friday’s, there are outside vendors who have profited too much from our community members at First Friday events to let those events die. First Friday’s will most likely continue very similar to the format they have taken over the past few years. We are simply choosing to move on from them so we can focus on sustainable ways to effectively promote and stimulate the downtown Marion economy for years to come. That is, after all, the mission of Main Street Marion.