If, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the folks at the Market Square District Association are feeling pretty darn flattered.
That is the group that came up with the idea and launched the “First Friday” program six years ago. It’s a simple concept. On the first Friday of each month, many shops and galleries downtown provide free snacks and often wine to patrons and encourage visitors to make a night of it by walking from venue to venue to check out the merchandise. There’s music some places and balloons decorate many of the entrances, creating a generally festive atmosphere.
It’s really caught on. This past Friday, Gay Street and Market Square were full of folks making the rounds. You’d stop and socialize when you’d run into friends and acquaintances as you popped from place to place and it was a very nice time.
Well, recognizing a good concept when they saw one, the folks seven miles to the west of downtown who call themselves The District in Bearden two years ago started their own First Friday activities. Same concept. Food, wine, even radio station remote broadcasts to attract and welcome patrons to the galleries and shops. Only difference is you really can’t walk between the locations in Bearden unless you want to risk your life trying to cross busy Kingston Pike. You must drive your car from place to place. But still, tons of fun as you see friendly faces and folks you know at every stop.
This has begun to grate on the nerves of the originators of the idea.
“First Friday was intended to be a downtown event that attracted people downtown,” says John Craig, president of the Market Square District Association. “With all the capital and sweat equity we’ve put into it, we take this seriously. I don’t understand their logic in the first place. Why split the audience when each of us could have a win?”
Craig says if the Bearden folks would pick a different day than the first Friday of each month for their event, the downtown group would even help them market it. “Why don’t they do it the second Saturday? Or the second Friday?” Craig asks.
Craig says he’s tried to discuss the issue with the Bearden group, but has not been successful. “They’ve just been kind of rude about it,” Craig says.
The Bearden group says it’s the downtown group that’s been more than rude. Bob McClellan, of M.S. McClellan clothing store, is head of The District in Bearden. He says his group received a “cease and desist” letter over the summer from a downtown intellectual property lawyer on behalf of the Market Square District Association. “They threatened to sue us if we continued First Friday,” McClellan said. He said that letter “really pissed off” some members of his group and they voted not to back down. “There are First Fridays all over the country,” McClellan said. “There is no trademark to be had.”
For his part, McClellan said the Bearden businesses are not trying to attract customers away from downtown. “This appeals to our customer base - the customers we already have,” McClellan said. “Downtown has everything. They have parades. They have Market Square. They have the world on a string. We are just trying to create something for our area.”
When asked why the Bearden group chose the same night as the downtown group for their efforts, he said a marketing consultant suggested it. “We haven’t viewed it as competition - it’s just one more thing to do. A rising tide floats all boats.”
McClellan said that changing the day for First Friday in Bearden wasn’t a viable option this year because by the time the issue was raised, the group’s marketing materials already had been printed. And the lawyer letter seemed like a “strong-arm tactic” that caused his associates to dig in their heels. “The Market Square group has backed other groups off doing First Friday,” McClellan said. “But you can’t own First Friday.”
The city of Knoxville even has gotten involved, trying to get the two groups to make nice. Mickey Mallonee, the city’s director of special events, arranged a meeting at Cafe Four with members of both groups. “It did not go well,” she said.
“Now they want to talk,” McClellan says by way of explanation. “You threaten to sue me and now you want to talk to me?”
Craig says he’s still hopeful that the two groups can come to some kind of agreement and actually support each other.
“We’re not shutting any doors,” McClellan said. He said that in February, the Bearden group will decide what they are going to do in 2010.
Side note: I visited about a dozen locations downtown and in Bearden on Friday night. Almost all of them were packed. The new Christmas merchandise was beautiful in all the shops. The art (if not the wine!) was high quality. People were shopping and having fun in both parts of town.
Our friends Susan and Arthur Seymour say they make it a habit of going to both First Fridays every month. Arthur’s tip: start in Bearden, where activities are scheduled a little earlier, and end downtown where you can go all night if you want to.