It’s summer in Manhattan, and the days are still getting longer. Bluegrass music washes down from the Taphouse rooftop over the crowd below. Across Poyntz, a group of friends and their dogs lounge on AJ’s patio, sipping beers, when a group of cyclists walk up with their bikes and ask to pet the pups. A small crowd has gathered outside the Village Geek in the Orville Huntress building to learn about X-Wing figurines and a Star Wars themed game. The smell of bouquets for purchase outside Steve’s Floral mixes with the aroma of fresh baguettes in the back of Radina’s bike cart. Artists and musicians fill every available space between the restaurants and stores. There are paintings of prairie sunsets outside of Bourbon and Baker, necklaces and earrings by Brown’s Shoe Fit, a young woman gets henna on her arm inside Connected Fair Trade, and a man plays kick drum and accordion near El Patrón. A child squeals as she feels a potter’s mud morph under her grip. It’s Third Thursday in Manhattan.
After a successful inaugural season in 2018, Manhattan’s Third Thursday event will once again highlight the local art community and downtown businesses from May until September. The concept, along with First and Final Friday events, has provided a regular boom for local economies in other cities and is on track to become one of Manhattan’s favorite traditions. For Annette Radina, who organized artists during the inaugural season, Third Thursdays were a no brainer. “A few years ago, I realized that Lawrence had Final Fridays, Kansas City, Salina and Topeka had First Fridays and there wasn’t any reason why Manhattan didn’t. The Manhattan Arts Center and I looked around and saw those cities moving on the arts scene and realized that it was time for Manhattan, but it takes that person to stand up and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’”
Working with Gina Scroggs, executive director of Downtown Manhattan, Inc., Radina and the Manhattan Arts Center, worked with local businesses, artists and musicians to find new ways to create an artistic experience in the downtown business district. “We have wonderful indoor opportunities to experience art in Manhattan like the Beach Museum and the Strecker-Nelson West Gallery, but we hadn’t provided too many opportunities for new people to experience art outside of a traditional art space. Third Thursdays are a great opportunity for the community to interact with artists and introduce art to new people.” Since many of the artists recruited by Radina lived in other communities with First or Final Friday events, it wasn’t hard to sell the concept. “Everyone was so excited to participate, and afterwards, they told me how much they loved the exposure and loved being out meeting people!”
For Scroggs, the growth of each Third Thursday event was both exciting and a sign of the event’s potential. “We had more artists and entertainers signing up to perform each month, and each month, we had more patrons spending their evening with us. By the end of the first season, we think we were really starting to create a vibe by representing the arts and entertainment community in Manhattan. I think last year really showed us that we have lined up the culture with the audience, and that gives us lots of room to grow.”
Art walks like Third Thursdays don’t only culturally enrich a community, they create significant economic impact for vendors and nearby businesses. In Lawrence, the Final Friday event serves as a way for locals to enjoy downtown and arts districts while also attracting tourists from similar events in Kansas City and Chicago, where many university alumni reside. In 2011, the City conducted an arts census to determine the initial economic impact of the event and found that, on average, close to 3,000 people attended a Final Friday event and spent over $26 per person, leading to a 2011 impact of over $80,000 per Final Friday in the event districts alone. In more established markets, both the average spend and the attendance increase. In Oakland, Calif., a 2013 study found that their First Friday attendees spent $80 per visit on average, which increased revenue per business by 100 to 250 percent.
While Downtown Manhattan has not assessed the total economic impact, individual businesses have seen an increase in business around the event. At Bourbon and Baker, Managing Partner Evan Grier, who also owns Harry’s and manages Tallgrass Taphouse, saw a 20 percent year-over-year increase in revenue during the months with Third Thursday events. While this increase is significant, Grier believes that the largest positive impact of Third Thursdays was the new energy that the event brought to downtown. “Looking out across the downtown, I was seeing more families, more kids, which is different from what I typically see on a weeknight or even a weekend downtown. For us, that was the most exciting thing: to see those families downtown, out on the sidewalks.” Grier brings a savvy restaurateur’s perspective to Third Thursdays. “For restaurants, the commodity of the future isn’t food, but time, which is why we’ll need to engage the full entertainment spectrum to win the day.”
This impact wasn’t only felt at Harry’s, Tallgrass Taphouse and Bourbon and Baker. Adam Peyton, owner of AJ’s Pizza, saw a 10 to 50 percent revenue increase from Thursdays from the year before. In addition to the revenue increase, Peton saw the broad community participation as a significant benefit. “Both retail and restaurants were active participants in the event. It was good to see shops open later than usual and restaurants full of people.”
Evan Grier agrees: “Third Thursdays were a really positive overall experience for downtown businesses and the byproduct was an increase in sales. For example, we had music in front of Bourbon and Baker and Harry’s a couple of times, and while that didn’t directly bring people into those restaurants, I believe a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Following the success of last year’s Third Thursdays, Annette Radina is confident in the second year. “I think it’s going to grow even more this year because we have Morgan Biles with Downtown Manhattan heading up organizing this year, Taylor McFall with MHK Music Scene will schedule the musicians, and Courtney Smith is going to be working with USD 383’s art teachers on art programming. Thanks to what this group brings, we’re hoping to add even more diversity to the artistic and musical lineup this year! Third Thursdays bring a lot energy to downtown and to Manhattan, but most importantly, they bring the whole community together.” Like Radina, Peyton is excited for “a wide variety of entertainment and a good mixture of music” this season. To the community at large, he says “come downtown and experience our local art and music scene.”
For Taylor McFall, Third Thursday events fit within a broader movement to promote local music and musicians across the community. “At MHK Music Scene, we see events like Third Thursday as opportunities to showcase the talent and diversity of musicians and bands in the Manhattan area. The musicians we are booking are community minded and want to see Manhattan thrive. The city has an opportunity through Third Thursday and other events like MidFest, to embrace and value the local creative culture. The economic return from festival-type events through increased tourism and commerce is well established. Manhattan can easily be the entertainment hub of the Flint Hills and beyond by intentionally valuing and participating in the atmosphere generated at these events.”
Energy among musicians, business owners and others has led Scroggs to set a lofty goal for the second Third Thursday season. “We have a goal to close the streets for the July Third Thursday event and host a band or two on Poyntz Avenue. We would love to enhance the overall experience with a street festival and think that mid-summer is a great time to bring the community together.” Never short of vision or energy, McFall is on board. To the community, he emphasized the need for demonstrating community support. “All bands and singers that make it big start locally. By uplifting the talent that is right here in our community, you are encouraging what could be a superstar of tomorrow.”
While direct sales increases provide an immediate return on Third Thursday events, the largest value might be realized by activating the Downtown Manhattan brand. Reflecting on the event, Grier said, “Downtown’s brand is a great representation of how key employers, entertainment venues, arts, dining, full- and part-time residents are converging as a community. It’s one of the few places in Kansas where you can walk from home to multiple dining options, the grocery store, church, and work, find leisure activities and have friends and family at a hotel within walking distance. I can’t name a similar situation in all of Kansas outside of the Power and Light District in Kansas City. Downtown Manhattan is a true lifestyle center alive in north central Kansas.”
Josh Brewer is the agency marketing director a 502, a strategic marketing agency in Manhattan.