This month’s First Friday event was the first time the Town of Leesburg experimented with closing King Street between Loudoun and Market streets to vehicle traffic.
Visitors packed the street.
“We knew it would be a good event, but we were pleasantly surprised with how well received it was with the residents and the businesses,” said 27 South owner Nick McCarter, who led the charge—and fronted the cost—of closing the street.
The Leesburg Town Council had debated the idea of closing the street for years, but always avoided it in the face of opposition from some businesses and even event organizers. Many expressed concerns that the idea could hurt some businesses—especially those outside that part of King Street, where people congregated during the street closure.
But McCarter said there are far more people who like the idea—an argument that may have been vindicated by the people packed into downtown Leesburg on Friday, and his growing Facebook group, Leesburg Stroll the Streets. He put up the $800 fee to close the street, on top of getting an insurance policy for the event and hiring balloon artists and entertainment, along with other costs.
“It was a gamble in August, and we didn’t know if we were going to do it again in September or not,” McCarter said. “It went so well that we’re going to do it again.”
“We probably had our best First Friday ever,” said Black Hoof Brewing Company owner Bill Haase. “We got crushed, and we were happy about it.”
He said he and his wife Nikki also walked around town for dinner and joked they “probably had too much fun.”
“It was fantastic, being able to walk around the street, talk to people, and not have to worry about dodging cars out there,” Haase said.
Similarly, Wine Kitchen Leesburg manager Charles Schech said it was “a great success for the restaurants and businesses” that “surpassed many expectations.”
“We’re definitely in support of having this event continue,” Schech wrote by email. “This past First Friday showed the town and businesses that this is something they will continue to enjoy. Expanding ‘Stroll the Streets’ to potentially include alcoholic beverage cups as done in the Village at Leesburg should also be considered a possibility in the near future.”
In fact, that is a distinct possibility.
Going forward, McCarter said, Stroll the Streets is only going to grow. He said he plans to meet with Town of Leesburg staff members soon to apply to close the street again in September. And if it keeps happening, he said, he’s got big plans—like expanding the event’s footprint, hiring more entertainment, renting picnic tables and portable toilets, and getting a permit to allow people to take their alcoholic drinks out of the restaurants and breweries and onto the street. But already, he said, even businesses outside King Street saw the benefit as restaurants and shops saw long lines and foot traffic spilled over into other parts of town.
“It’s what I’ve been telling people for years—more people in downtown is good for all business,” McCarter said.
His used his own business, a furniture store, as an example.
“We didn’t make any money at our furniture store on First Friday. We sold a few things, but nobody’s buying a couch at First Friday,” McCarter said. “… We just spent a bunch. But we know that getting our name out, it’s marketing dollars, it’s marketing 101.” And he said the same is true for Leesburg: “This is so good for not the First Friday nights as well, getting more buzz about Leesburg and having people see how awesome this town is.”
Growing the event, though, will mean much higher costs. He hopes to get buy-in from other businesses in the area, and has even had offers from residents to help foot the bill.
Haase and Schech both said it would make sense for their businesses to contribute some money toward keeping Stroll the Streets going.
“Fingers crossed it’ll work out,” McCarter said. “I’m obviously not going to fund this thing into perpetuity, but the idea is for it to keep going and gain momentum and get more support from the business community.”
Very Virginia owner Sola Pallotta, who has long organized First Friday, declined to be interviewed until after speaking with McCarter.