TARPON SPRINGS — For the last five years, the city’s First Friday events have proven to be major economic drivers, with thousands of visitors flocking to the downtown district on the first Friday of every month and many returning to town later, according to officials with event host, the Tarpon Springs Merchants Association.
So, when the 2020 schedule came before the City Commission in early December, it was expected to be a quick, unanimous vote of approval for the 10 scheduled First Friday events.
Concerns surrounding street closures and questions about setup procedures, however, caused the commission to table the discussion until after the holiday break, leaving the initial 2020 First Friday, scheduled for Feb. 7, in limbo.
“Regarding the First Friday event, I noticed that the street closure is getting a little bit earlier and I do have some concerns with that regarding some of the brick and mortar businesses that function seven days a week,” Commissioner Townsend Tarapani said when the consent agenda items was read Dec. 10.
“I think that closing the street at 3:30 is too early, especially as we go into the summer months.”
Tarapani asked the Merchants Association to consider a later closing time, “perhaps 4:30,” leading Mayor Chris Alahouzos to inquire about the reason behind the requested time change.
“The reason we’re asking is for public safety,” the business association’s special events coordinator Carol Rodriguez, replied. “Our public loves our First Fridays. They cannot wait to get down to Tarpon Avenue. Therefore, we’re asking to close the street at 3:30 instead of 4 … due to safety issues.”
Rodriguez said the extra half hour would allow more time to remove illegally parked cars and for the vendors to set up. “We draw huge crowds — anywhere from two to four thousand people come to First Fridays,” she said, adding they typically have between 100 and 140 vendors to get in place.
Admitting some business owners are upset while others aren’t, Rodriguez said, “We’re not going to make everyone happy. But I can remember almost five years ago standing here, people did not think First Friday was going to be a success, and it’s a huge success.”
Alahouzos acknowledged the popularity of First Friday but added, “We want to make sure we do not hurt the other businesses down there, and I was actually looking that you have better communication with some of the business people why you are closing the streets at 3:30 instead of 4.”
After Commissioner Jacob Karr said he supported leaving Mother Meres parking lot at Tarpon and Pinellas Avenue open; shuttling vendors over from the Splash Park on Live Oak Stree; and closing streets later rather than earlier, Tarapani made a motion to table the vote until a follow-up meeting could be held to iron out the concerns.
The motion was approved, 4-0. Commissioner Rea Sieber was absent from the meeting.
Afterwards, an exasperated Rodriguez spoke about the unexpected vote.
“I expected it to be a quick vote to approve the schedule,” she said as she coordinated the Christmas Angel program a few days later. “Had I known it would’ve gotten that much pushback, I would’ve made sure we had merchants and vendors there to help plead our case as to why it’s so important to close the streets as early as possible.”
As for the status of the event, Rodriguez said, “Our hands are tied until the commission makes a decision on the start time to block the street. As of right now that’s scheduled for January. But until we know for sure, the series is on hold.”
When contacted for an update prior to publication, Rodriguez said the Merchants Association met with city and police officials a week before Christmas and a consensus was reached on the issues that should prevent any disruption of the 2020 First Friday schedule.
“We had a discussion and we’re going to close the streets at 3:30 and we’re going to try to find a place for vendors to park,” Rodriguez said by phone Jan. 2, noting the meeting was attended by a few merchants as well as Economic Development Director Karen Lemmons, Police Chief Robert Kochen and Commissioner Connor Donovan, among others. “We worked out some of the particulars. Now we’ll wait and see what happens when the commission votes on it Jan. 14.”