By Kelly Baker, Oakland Local

Thousands of people attend First Friday each month. (Oakland Local)
Thousands of people attend First Friday each month. (Oakland Local)

It’s been nearly a year since the shooting that took the life of young Kiante Campbell and sent shock waves through the community. In the wake of the tragedy, many questioned the future of Oakland’s First Fridays event. Over the summer, the city dealt another blow by scaling back its financial support of the monthly event. Koreatown Northgate Community Benefits District (KONO) has since taken the reins of the once entirely volunteer and community-run monthly street festival. But now, more than ever, KONO believes First Fridays are here to stay.

Last week, KONO released a report on the benefits the monthly event has for local businesses, vendors and attendees. Key findings show that event attendees spend, on average, $80 per visit, and revenue for business owners increases 100 to 250 percent on event nights. Moreover, 48 percent of survey respondents reported that they would need to find replacement income if the event were no longer to occur.

Highlighting the importance of First Fridays for budding entrepreneurs, 38 percent of street vendors reported that Oakland First Fridays was their first vendor experience. Victoria Swift, the Mills College graduate student who implemented the five-month study, said this response indicates that “First Friday can be a mechanism to promote economic opportunity for hyper-localized business and entrepreneurs who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get a foot into the marketplace.” With its low vendor fees — starting at just $10 for a table — First Fridays presents resource-strapped entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to test out their business ideas and make valuable connections.

The surveys were collected between March and July 2013, beginning right after the shooting and ending around the time when the city cut off its funding for the event. Through some of the most uncertain months in the festival’s history, Swift diligently followed up with business owners in order to get a clearer picture about how the event impacts their businesses.

Swift said that at first she was surprised by the community response. “When I went to do the initial interviews, a lot of feedback was venting about the shooting,” she explained. But as she continued to follow up with local business owners, she said their attitudes turned away from wanting to shut the whole thing down. “Talking things through with them was a nice exercise to help them walk through their emotions.”

Now local businesses are stepping up to offer sponsorships for the event. The commercial vacancy rate in the KONO district fell to just 12 percent, down from 47 percent two years ago. KONO Executive Director Shari Godinez believes this achievement is attributable to the popularity of First Fridays. Swift explained that “business owners are incorporating the event into their business plans.”

Swift also added that “city officials have been monumental in supporting First Friday.” However, she points out some critical needs for increased cooperation at the end of her report. She suggests that the city:

  • Reallocate some Measure C funding to event organizers to better stabilize its infrastructure
  • Work with the Special Business Permits office and Economic Workforce Development to find creative solutions that will protect and foster the entrepreneurial environment of Oakland First Fridays
  • Encourage further cooperation among city agencies like the Oakland Police Department and Public Works to address public safety and cleanliness concerns for areas beyond the event footprint
  • Promote Oakland First Fridays in official city marketing campaigns and Visit Oakland materials as a tourist destination for the region

In all, the future is looking bright for First Fridays. Instead of continuing as a volunteer-run event, KONO is stepping in. The organization has hired Sarah Kidder to coordinate the monthly event in order to streamline some of the logistical issues. Kidder assures that the event budget is on track, and adds, “I do believe wholeheartedly that every aspect of the event will be more fun, more interesting, and more smoothly run.” Street closures will continue on Telegraph from West Grand up to 27th Street, and Kidder encourages folks to turn out early — festivities begin at 5 p.m. and promptly end at 9 p.m.

Most importantly, First Friday is a unifying event for many Oakland residents and visitors alike. It’s a showcase of the incredible talent in The Town, but it also presents a great opportunity. Through this report, Swift says, “I hope that people get really excited about shopping local and supporting localized business — that will haul us out of this recession. If we keep building up local business, it will propel Oakland as a unique urban center.”

This story originally appeared on KQED’s News Associate Oakland Local.

  • tcbrekke

    Encourage further cooperation among city agencies like the Oakland Police Department and Public Works to address public safety and cleanliness concerns for areas beyond the event footprint

    What about starting INSIDE the event footprint? As someone who who’s lived in the area since before the city/KONO got involved (before I knew someone was calling the neighborhood KONO, for that matter), I can say that it’s only gotten dirtier and wilder since the city/KONO took it over. I think it started as a great event, and I think it can be again, but it’s worth remembering that a place that’s a playground for all of Oakland and anyone else who wants to come out is also a place where some of us live every day of the year. Hiring competent security who will do more than harass me for trying to get to my apartment and cleanup crews that don’t give up once the trash cans start overflowing might be a good spot to start.

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