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First Friday faces hurdles to return to downtown St. Petersburg

The pandemic shut down the monthly block party that had been going on for more than 20 years. New organizers are facing a learning curve as the city seeks changes.
A new organizer, Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, has taken over and will again have a First Friday party on Sept. 2.
A new organizer, Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, has taken over and will again have a First Friday party on Sept. 2. [ Tampa Bay Nightlife TV ]
Published Aug. 3|Updated Aug. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — For more than 20 years, the Optimist Club of St. Petersburg operated the Get Downtown block party on the first Friday of every month, when traffic would be blocked on Central Avenue for live music and vendors selling beer and food.

The popular gathering was shut down during the pandemic and the club stepped away from running the event, which also raised money for charities.

A new organizer, Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, has taken over and will again have a First Friday party on Sept. 2, though a “laundry list” of issues presented to them by the city prompted them to shut down plans to hold the block party this week.

Bill McArdle, owner of Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, and David Lay of 22N Productions said they decided to step in to restart the block party earlier this year. As longtime St. Petersburg residents, they missed the monthly gathering that drew hundreds of people across a variety of age groups to pack Central Avenue between Second and Third streets.

“It’s a wonderful event. It’s great for businesses and great for the city,” McArdle said.

Crowds gather on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg at a recent First Friday block party. A new organizer, Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, has taken over the event, which had been shut down for two years by the pandemic.
Crowds gather on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg at a recent First Friday block party. A new organizer, Tampa Bay Nightlife TV, has taken over the event, which had been shut down for two years by the pandemic. [ Tampa Bay Nightlife TV ]

But what he hadn’t counted on was how expensive the event would be, costing $8,000-$10,000 each month to pay for closing the streets, policing, insurance and staging. He is in search of sponsors to help defray the cost and keep the event going.

McArdle said he has had a big learning curve in managing the crowd to the city’s satisfaction. At a meeting this week, he said he was asked to address a number of issues, from how many portable toilets are onsite to how the barricades are staffed to prevent revelers from taking alcohol outside the zone, to when the vendors and the stage is cleared from the area.

“There are some things we need to address and we cannot get them done in four days. Plus, with the heat index and a 60% chance of thunderstorms, there will not be a First Friday in August,” McArdle said. He said the Optimist Club often canceled the event in the summer months because of the heat and rainstorms.

When they do return Sept. 2, the plan is to have live music by the band Borderline. Money will be collected for the nonprofit Lifting Hearts 2gether, which provides aid to the medically needy, especially seniors.

“I love to just stand back and watch because it’s great to see people of all ages having a great time,” McArdle said. “I just hope we can iron the curves out. Everyone’s safety is the main concern, but we want to have a good time.”

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City spokesperson Janelle Taylor said they offer in-kind services such the as closing of parking meters, but like all events, they have to charge for services.

“The city is co-sponsor to approximately 150 events annually. With very few exceptions, those sponsorships include support for the event and logistical back-up for things like police presence and traffic control,” Taylor said. “However, event organizers are still billed for city services. That remains the case for the First Friday events.”

In the meantime, McArdle is hoping he can attract city boosters and sponsors to firstfridaystpete.org to pitch in and help defray the costs.

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