Full article from Messenger-Inquirer 9.13.21 by Keith Lawrence M-I.
It was July 11, 1997.
Arnold Chin, one of the most successful local bands of the 1970s and ’80s, was playing Jerry Jeff Walker’s anthem, “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” in what’s now the Atmos Energy Courtyard at the RiverPark Center.
John Froehlich, executive director of the old Downtown Owensboro Inc., estimated that more than 200 people had crowded into the courtyard for the performance.
Another 40 or so listened from inside what was then Woodward’s Cafe next door. And more than 50 stood or sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside. The speakers were cranked up and the sound rolled along the street. Those who couldn’t see had no trouble hearing.
That was how Friday After 5, Owensboro’s premier free summer music festival, began.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” Nick Hetman, the festival’s first chairman, said at the time. “We didn’t expect this many people the first week. This is just great.”
It was a four-week event back then.
In recent years, it’s grown into a 16-week festival that draws an estimated 70,000 people to the downtown riverfront every summer.
This year’s festival was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. But the board of directors is busy planning for next year’s 25th anniversary season — and beyond.
Friday After 5 is more than entertainment. It’s also an economic engine, pumping tens of thousands of dollars into downtown restaurants, bars, hotels, the Owensboro Convention Center and the RiverPark Center.
“It’s fantastic,” Blake Henry, who was then the general manager of the convention center, said in 2017. “I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the country. Every week, I run into people from out of town who have great things to say about the festival and downtown. It brings people together and it helps downtown businesses.” The convention center alone, he said, took in more than $180,000 in food and beverage sales that year. And downtown restaurants and bars are always crowded during Friday After 5.
“While many people see Friday after 5 as just music along the riverfront for local residents, I see it as a great amenity that adds value to our convention and sports group attendees,” Mark Calitri, president of the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said recently.
“Conventions and sports groups choose a location to hold their events because of fun activities like Friday After 5,” he said. “Having an exciting and vibrant downtown has numerous benefits for Owensboro. When our downtown is buzzing with excitement, the entire city receives an economic impact.” Calitri said, “Successful downtowns have life after 5 p.m. Research suggests that 70% of consumer spending takes place after 5 p.m.”
For the first time, Friday After 5 is about to hire a full-time executive director.
An announcement is expected to come later this month.
Big growth expected
Jay Velotta, this year’s chairman, said in the future, “We’ll continue to provide higher caliber entertainment in the same format.” He sees the festival expanding beyond Fridays, beyond 16 weeks and maybe beyond Owensboro.
Next year, Velotta said, the Owensboro Air Show is scheduled for Aug. 13-15 and the Owensboro Hydrofair is set for Aug. 20-22.
“They’re on back-to-back weekends,” Velotta said. “We can help stretch the entertainment out for the whole week. We need to reach out beyond where we are now to become a more regional or even national event.”
He said, “I believe we’ll have some changes in the level of our entertainment. But we don’t want to leave local entertainers out. They’re the backbone of Friday After 5. We need a good mix of local and national performers.”
In 2017, LOCASH, a nationally known country act, drew 7,600 people to the lawn of the convention center for a free show.
“We want to make sure our guests are satisfied,” Velotta said. “We may have special events throughout the year. We may go beyond Owensboro at some point.”
He said, “Having one key contact person (full-time executive director) will make a difference. The search committee did a fantastic job.”
The field of applicants was narrowed to two people last month.
“There is no limit to what we can do,” Velotta said. “But we need to recruit more volunteers and we need to take care of our sponsors. That’s huge.”
He said, “We have fantastic venues. Are there other venues we can add? We want to help the The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum see more benefits. We want to work with Lure and the Holiday Inn.”
Kirk Kirkpatrick retired as part-time executive director of the festival in 2016 after 20 years.
He remains on the board.
“Our board believes there are opportunities to grow Friday After 5 and with a 24-year head start, we’ve discussed many ways we can expand,” he said. Kirkpatrick said, “We are waiting to create a new five-year plan until our new executive director takes the reins. Our board and Friday After 5 team want to use the momentum that our reputation as the “Best Community Event” affords us to plan a bright, exciting next 25 years of Friday After 5 for our city.” He said, “We’re about as large as we can get. We extend the entire length of the riverfront now.”
Kirkpatrick said, “We’re excited about the number and quality of the bands and entertainers who have shown interest in performing at Friday After 5. We think we can focus on bringing in the entertainment that will ensure that we have something for everyone on a larger scale in the future while still keeping the event free.”
He said, “We’re inquiring about working with other organizations to create additional reasons for visitors to come early, stay longer and enjoy the experience Owensboro can provide.” There wasn’t much entertainment downtown — free or otherwise — 25 years ago, other than the shows at the RiverPark Center and the Executive Inn Rivermont.
But in the summer of 1997, that was about to change.
The Chamber Young Professionals was staging its fourth “Arts on the River,” a six-concert series in Smothers Park at 11:30 a.m. on Thursdays. Then, Downtown Owensboro Inc. stepped in on July 11 with what was then called “Fridays After 5.”
“We’ve been kicking the idea around for awhile,” Chip Pride, a member of the “Arts on the River” committee, said at the time.
“We want to try to get more people downtown at night,” he said. “We’ve got a beautiful riverfront. Why not take advantage of it?”
In the beginning, there was just one stage and the festival lasted from 5 to 8 p.m.
“We’re not trying to compete with other downtown entertainment and restaurants,” Froehlich said. “We’re trying to bring people downtown. And while they’re down here, we hope they’ll stay.” After the success of the first week, he said, “Now that we’ve got the people out downtown on a Friday night, we’ve got to persuade more stores to stay open later on Friday nights to take advantage of them.”
That eventually happened.
And the festival continued to grow.
Keith Lawrence 270-691-7301, [email protected]