CUYAHOGA FALLS — A new-look downtown presented some challenges for event organizers this year, and while some wrinkles need to be ironed out, officials were generally pleased with how things played out.
A refurbished downtown was the scene of several city-sponsored events and the trio of traditional festivals this past summer. Of course, the main feature was a section of Front Street that was re-opened to vehicular traffic for the first time in 40 years.
The summer kicked off with an event celebrating the re-opening of Front Street on June 2. The festivities included a parade, live music, food, and "a sampling of the Falls Downtown Fridays events," said Kelli Crawford-Smith, director of the Neighborhood Excellence, Communications and Community Outreach Department.
Crawford-Smith noted the Falls Downtown Friday events were: Bebop on the Block, June 15; River Rock Fest, June 22; Crafty Mart, June 29; Stars and Stripes: Honoring our Local Heroes, July 6; Taste of the Falls, July 13; Kids Fest, July 27; and Soul, Rhythm & Brews, Aug. 3.
"We were incredibly proud to bring residents and visitors to enjoy our new Downtown Cuyahoga Falls during the grand opening of Front Street, Falls Downtown Fridays, and Flicks on the Falls events," said Crawford-Smith. "All events were family and pet friendly and focused heavily on local food, local craft beer, local entertainment and local retail and market vendors. Over $37,000 was donated back to local charitable organizations that serve Cuyahoga Falls."
She noted felt the events "reinvigorated downtown and brought thousands of residents and visitors back to the heart of the city." The most well-attended city events were the grand opening of Front Street, Kids Fest, Stars and Stripes, and Soul, Rhythm and Brews, according to Crawford-Smith.
Mayor Don Walters added city officials were "thrilled to watch our riverfront and downtown come back to life through the Falls Downtown Fridays event series and the reopening of Front Street."
The new downtown meant the three traditional annual festivals — the Riverfront Irish Festival, Festa Italiana and Cuyahoga Falls Oktoberfest — worked with a different set-up for vendors and walking areas.
Mike Coyne, who chaired this year’s Irish Festival in June, said, "mostly, it went OK." He noted the facelift given to downtown presented some challenges for the event set-up and said a lot of time went into the plans.
"It was difficult, but we got it figured out and got it set up," said Coyne, who added both Festa and Oktoberfest leaders were able to look at the Irish Festival’s set-up and learn how they could organize their own events.
"We were the guinea pig for everybody else," said Coyne, laughing.
Coyne said the set-up near the amphitheater was not significantly different, other than some electrical issues because certain infrastructure was no longer there due to the revamped downtown.
"There were things that were still unknowns by the time our [event] came around and we had it all set up," recalled Coyne.
He noted the width of some of the food vendor stands prevented them from being set up in some areas because they would block the fire lane.
As an example, the fountain at the north end of downtown (toward Oakwood) was still being constructed when the Irish Festival organizers were set to stage their event.
"It was kind of unknown how we could use [the north end]" noted Coyne. "Could we put a stage up there? … [Festa Italiana] did [put up a stage]. At the time when we had to make our decision, there was really nothing we could do [on the north end]."
He added Irish Festival leaders received permission from the owner of land below Portage Trail to set up a stage.
"We didn’t [set up] past Portage Trail just because of all the unknowns," said Coyne.
Before the change to downtown, Coyne said his festival set up its vendors, entertainment and other activities north of Portage Trail and they are discussing the possibility of doing that in upcoming years.
Rick Sabo, who chaired Festa Italiana in July, said the layout for the event was "totally different because of having to maintain fire lanes." No food stands, entertainment or other activities could be positioned in the fire lanes.
"The city and the fire department worked really well with us and gave us a lot of support help us get set up," noted Sabo.
The different configuration "gave a different feel to the festival," added Sabo. "There seemed to be more room to maneuver because everything was kind of lined up like a street fair … it was neat."
In the past, the vendors and other features were set up in the "pockets" between the planters along the pedestrian mall, said Sabo.
"It kind of wandered down [the mall]," recalled Sabo. "It wasn’t a straight shot." Not having the planters taking up space is "probably why this feels more open than it did [in the past]."
Attendees could walk on the sidewalk or on the street — which was closed to vehicles for the three festivals. Sabo noted his event was able to set up vendors and other activities on both the north and south sides of downtown. The major vendors were all set up on the west side of the street on the south end, and the east side of the road had tents set up, according to Sabo. There were more food vendors on the parking deck side of the road on the north end, as well as a stage next to the north fountain.
"It was a smaller area than we’ve had before for the stage," said Sabo. "But it was a nice area to have. To me, it was a perfect spot to have it right there with the fountain."
He said organizers had to work around the new light poles and benches, but noted "all in all, it worked well."
"We got a lot of positive feedback from the vendors [and guests]," said Sabo. "It was like a new festival …there were just some things you had to get used to."
He noted the area near the amphitheater (close to Broad Boulevard) was mostly unchanged except for the removal of some electric infrastructure.
Other downtown features replaced, upcoming events
Both the splash pad near the amphitheater and the ice skating rink were replaced because both were nearing "the end of [their] useful life," said Crawford-Smith.
Speaking of the ice skating rink, the city will host the annual rink opening on Nov. 24 at noon, followed by the Holiday Fest from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Walters will welcome Santa Claus, and the tree lighting ceremony will happen at about 6. Admission to the rink is free with skate rentals at $4/rental.
Next up are two downtown Halloween activities: youngsters can trick-or-treat at downtown businesses from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Oct. 19. After that, there will be a showing of the 1984 version of "Ghostbusters" at 7 p.m. at the amphitheater.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, email@example.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.