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Fun for revelers means funds for business

Rochelle Smith calls it the "may the force be with you" hug.

Smith, manager of a Taste for Wine on Central Avenue, receives it about 5 p.m. on the first Friday of every month. It is delivered by Scott Long, manager of the nearby Central Avenue Oyster Bar.

The hug gears up both managers for what's going to be a long, noisy and prosperous evening.

"It's a high-energy night," Smith said. "You have to get very pumped for this."

Welcome to First Friday, a monthly street party that crams up to 5,000 people into a block of Central Avenue on the first Friday of every month. The hungry and thirsty crowds eventually spill into downtown restaurants and bars.

Though there are long waits in line and throngs of people in search of a bathroom, business managers say they do very well on First Fridays.

"In the end, you have a great night," Long said.

And how.

Owen Richason, manager of Central Cigars, said he sells an "outrageous" number of cigars on First Fridays. Smith said she triples her sales at a Taste for Wine.

Fortunatos' Italian Market bakes more than a hundred pizzas on First Fridays. Mastry's bar increases its staff to four bartenders, who see their tip jars swell.

At the party last night, people danced as rhythm and blues band Hart, Jackson and Watson dipped into famous cover songs, then dropped into slow funk.

Near Third Street, workers poured beers from a few of the 15 kegs cooling inside a Budweiser beer truck. Nearby, revelers pulled cold beers out of a tub of ice. Organizers say the First Friday crowd typically drains the 15 kegs along with 60 to 90 cases of beer.

Karen Rish and Melissa Archer celebrated Archer's 30th birthday by bar hopping and enjoying cold ones on the street.

"Everyone's friendly," Archer said.

"And you can drink in the street," Rish added, praising the city's once-a-month exception where cocktails are openly permitted on the stretch of Central Avenue.

Beer sales raise thousands of dollars, which are donated to local children's charities, said Lee Warnock, secretary of the Breakfast Optimist Club of St. Petersburg, the event's host.

"Everything is built around helping kids somehow," he said. "I can't think of how many people we give money to."

Developed in 1994 as a monthly concert series called Common Ground, the event took place over a nine-month span at McNulty Station at Third Street and First Avenue S. The series was sponsored by the Exchange Club of Northeast St. Petersburg.

The Breakfast Optimist Club, a local philanthropic organization, took the reins in 2001, changed the name to the Get Downtown First Friday Music Series and relocated the party to Central Avenue.

For the Breakfast Optimists, the Get Downtown series has been a boost for local businesses and civic pride.

"Tampa used to make fun of us. But downtown Tampa closes up at 5 o'clock," Warnock said. "Well, c'mon and see our downtown boys."

Times Staff Writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Casey Cora can be reached at (727) 392-2374 or at ccora@sptimes.com.

If you go

First Friday

What: Get Downtown First Friday Music Series

When: First Friday of every month, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Where: Central Avenue between Second and Third Streets, in St. Petersburg

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