“I didn’t realize this many people even lived in this town anymore!” said Harry McCallister, longtime Swarthmore resident and a visitor to September’s First Friday event in the Ville.
Swarthmore’s First Friday program began a year ago, when Allison DeSalvo, Director of the Music/Art program and Programming at The Creative Living Room, noticed an issue with the patterns of commerce in the Ville. While individual stores attracted a high amount of foot traffic, many of the Ville’s merchants struggled to retain visitors or residents who just passed through the town for individual errands.
“It’s easy to roll in, pick up a pizza at Renato’s, and then just drive back home,” says Scott Richardson, owner of the restaurant and catering service Occasionally Yours. “That doesn’t do any of the other businesses around here any good. But if you have something going on like our First Friday, you can eat your pizza, but you know, before you do that, maybe you’ve gone into Paulson Rug Company and had a glass of wine. Maybe you didn’t actually buy a rug, but now you know what he does – he sells blinds, beautiful wall-to-wall carpeting, he does cleanings… In my mind, it’s just a really great way to showcase the whole business district.”
DeSalvo initially promoted the idea that local stores unite together to create a stronger business district. By making any visit to the town a complete experience, she proposed that foot traffic to all the stores would inevitably increase. She was aided in her efforts by Marty Spiegel, Town Center Coordinator for Swarthmore Town Center, Inc, an organization dedicated to promoting the business success and resident living experience in Swarthmore. Together, DeSalvo and Spiegel spoke with each of the local merchants to raise an awareness of the potential an event like First Fridays held. Originally, the intent was to have local artists, musicians, poets, and others come to the businesses and “become a part of the evening, and provide entertainment for people walking around,” said Theresa Richardson, who runs Occasionally Yours with her husband Scott. But each of the participating businesses also wanted to offer something that was uniquely theirs.
Scott Richardson remembers being surprised by the turn out for the Ville’s initial First Friday event last October. Occasionally Yours offered a family pasta night, where visitors could order their choice of combinations of several pastas and sauces. “The inside of our place was filled, as was all the outdoor seating we had set up. People were actually lining up along the sidewalk waiting for their pasta.” The Richardsons alone served 70-80 dinners in two hours that evening, without any additional hired help. Other merchants met with similar results, and with this first success, First Fridays in the Ville got off to a promising start.
Spiegel’s main concern, coming from Swarthmore Town Center, Inc., was that the event should be one that encouraged repeat visitors to the Ville. As such, he was a strong proponent of the idea of a monthly-recurring event. DeSalvo’s plan for a First Friday program, inspired by two similar regional events, Philadelphia’s First Fridays and Media’s Second Saturdays, fit perfectly with Spiegel’s vision for an event that would keep people coming back for more.”
But while Philadelphia and Media’s respective events are known for their bustling nature, the organizers of Swarthmore’s First Fridays wanted to preserve the quaint charm of their “sleepy little town,” said Rosemary Fox, Director of the Theater program and of Marketing at The Creative Living Room.
While the event was initially expected to draw mainly established customers in the Ville, merchants have also begun to see new customers as a result. “People come around and tell me, ‘I’ve been living here for 10 years and I didn’t know we had a place like this!’” Fox says. Scott Richardson echoes her sentiments, noting that even though he has been operating for the past 20 years in the same location, people still stop in for the first time to ask him how long he has been there.
Students and the Ville
“Often the businesses would love to be part of this community, but are really not sure what they can do to get people to come see their faces,” she says. This is where she and Spiegel and others see the College’s students really joining in the community and making this event something they can own as well. When asked about what part students might play in this event, Spiegel lit up and said that he was absolutely looking for more performers of any sort, catering to almost any audience.
“We know there is a huge diversity of students there, with any number of fascinating talents. All they would have to do would be contact Allison or myself, and we would be able to hook them up with a business or venue that would be more than happy to host them.”
Even though the performance or exhibition may not be related to the business, Spiegel says, the added publicity for all the town’s businesses, and the inevitably increased amount of foot traffic, is a valuable economic incentive by itself.
“If you come out with your saxophone, and are playing in front of Poco Loco, then maybe some of your friends will come out to support you, and maybe somebody passing through will see the crowd and stop by to see what it’s about, and this is what we are really aiming for – getting people to see what there is.”
But drumming up this traffic has hit some significant roadblocks. College students are often unaware of the Ville’s lineup of events that could cater to their interests and ‘’’businesses struggle to attract their attention. Many cite the glut of events and resources on campus for the lack of interest in happenings just across the train tracks; the campus’ apparent self-sufficiency is lamented as a serious blow to local business. However, students often complain that the Ville doesn’t offer establishments that resonate with them.
Yet September’s event, held this past Friday, attracted a higher number of Swatties, to the surprise of Spiegel and others. Some had seen flyers around the Ville, but most, like Joan Kim ’10, heard via personal email or via friends. Kim had never attended a First Friday event before, but mentioned that she went into town about three times per month, typically to the Co-op. While she did go to the Co-op, her visit to Occasionally Yours seems to have made more of an impression on her. “The Co-op’s sushi was a bit disappointing, but I got to go to Occasionally Yours for the first time, and I would definitely go there again,” she said. Kim particularly enjoyed seeing the diversity of attendees, from Swarthmore residents to most notably to her, some of her professors with their families.
Despite the adversities, local businesses are generally optimistic about First Fridays, and their meaning for the revitalization of the Town Center. For example, the Ville is seeing the development of a new independent restaurant and coffee shop set to open within the next couple months.
Fox sees Swarthmore as centrally located, and poised to become a cultural capital among the surrounding towns, like Morton, Rutledge, Wallingford. While the original plans were focused only on the needs of Swarthmore residents, Spiegel sees a possibility to draw visitors from further away. “What we’re trying to do here is just get people’s feet into the doors of businesses here. Once we do that, it’s the merchants’ responsibility to keep them there, and keep them coming back, and I’m confident that they have the substance to back up all this excitement we’re generating.”