Kirk Kirkpatrick’s deal with RiverPark Center in 1996 went like this: as a representative of Downtown Owensboro, Kirkpatrick would produce four summer evening music events at RiverPark with the goal of drawing residents downtown. RiverPark Center would not charge a facility fee, but would keep any revenue earned from the sale of drinks.
Nineteen years later, that handshake deal is still in effect, and the four events have grown into Friday After 5, a summer-long series of Friday-night concerts in several venues along Owensboro’s signature riverfront. This revitalized downtown district welcomes newcomers and surprises residents with its stylish, open gathering places, punctuated by synchronized fountains, and takes full advantage of one of Owensboro’s biggest assets: the mighty Ohio River.
Owensboro’s new sense of accomplishment and possibility – “I feel an excitement in Owensboro like I’ve never felt,” said Mayor Ron Payne – owes a great debt to Friday After 5. The series led the way, held steady through dark days, and is now exploding in popularity as a premiere event, attracting visitors every week from Owensboro and all across the country.
[tw-divider]The Five F’s[/tw-divider]
“Virtually everyone in Owensboro knows about Friday After 5,” said Kirkpatrick, now Executive Director of the series. “It’s grown beyond what we dreamed.”
For sixteen Friday nights from the middle of May to Labor Day, residents stream downtown to enjoy the 5 F’s: Free, Fun, Family, Friends and Friday. The week’s headlining band performs on the main stage on the BB&T Plaza overlooking the Ohio River outside RiverPark Center. People talking and laughing fill the patio, with an open floor near the stage providing space for free spirits to dance the night away.
Inside RiverPark Center, Gospel on the River (sponsored by Glenn Family Services) takes place in Cannon Hall during six of those Friday evenings. Several gospel groups perform on each occasion – totally free. On the UniFirst Stage in RiverPark’s Atmos Energy Courtyard, an acoustic act also plays to a packed house, and at the far end of Smothers Park, local groups aimed at a younger crowd perform on the new Don Moore Overlook Stage under the “batwing.”
In the middle of Veterans Boulevard, along Smothers Park, the Kroger Street Fair offers hula hoop contests, water balloon tosses, balloon animals, costumed characters, and more fun kids’ activities. Various vendors set up shop as well. Plans for 2015 include a 20th anniversary celebration and the addition of another venue – the new overlook on the former site of the Executive Inn Showroom Lounge.
A palpable energy pervades the Friday After 5 crowds. The week is over, the fun is beginning and most folks are not afraid to let loose and enjoy themselves as they visit with friends and neighbors. The setting couldn’t be better, as the sun streaks the sky orange, red and gold, music floats on the air, kids dart through Smothers Park, and boats bob at anchor on the Ohio River.
[tw-divider]Bands and Sponsors[/tw-divider]
Friday After 5 has become so well-known that more than 140 bands submitted an application through www.fridayafter5.com to play for the 2014 season. The Friday After 5 committee selects and books bands by February for the coming summer. While some are local, many hail from larger regional cities. “We look for entertaining, diverse show bands,” Kirkpatrick said. Many bands even agree to a large discount because they like playing a family-friendly event that provides maximum exposure and ends by 10 p.m.
Each week of Friday After 5 is sponsored by a local company – their dollars cover the $130,000 yearly budget that includes bands, equipment, marketing and more. “Our sponsors are fantastic,” Kirkpatrick said. “We couldn’t do it without them.” Similar events around the country are stunned when they learn that everything at Friday After 5 is free because of sponsors – just another example of the top-shelf companies that call Owensboro home.
[tw-divider]Serving for a Cause[/tw-divider]
Friday After 5 committee members are eager to serve. Each venue has a committee member as a producer; members also handle other logistics, work on budgets, coordinate class “pre”unions (many class reunions use Friday After 5 as a perfect place way to fit in extra time together), handle marketing, and more. Members can also climb the succession ladder that leads to the committee chair, who emcees each week.
On Fridays, the team makes sure the main stage is up by 2 p.m., with a final rain decision made by 3 p.m. Short of a hurricane, the show will go on outside, Kirkpatrick said. Sound check runs from 2 to 4:30 p.m., with a final team committee meeting at 5:30 p.m. before the show cranks up at 6 p.m. Everything winds down around 10 p.m., as suits a family-friendly activity.
Brandon Gentry is the current president of Friday After 5’s board. He has served as committee chair in the past, and now focuses on behind-the-scenes details. Volunteer involvement with Friday After 5 enhances leadership ability and allows for prime networking opportunities, he said. “It’s refreshing to see the impact on the community (from) an event you volunteered your time in,” he said. “We can call it our own. Other cities are jealous of what we have to offer.”
Speaking of other cities, 27 additional Friday After 5 events now take place around the country. All started after Owensboro’s – some even asked permission to use the name.
Friday After 5 is a huge piece of the $274 million impact from tourism that Owensboro experienced in 2013. Both Kirkpatrick and Mayor Payne have noticed a significant uptick in out-of-towners they meet each week. “People have heard about the riverfront and Friday After 5,” Kirkpatrick said. “When they see both in action at the same time, their jaws drop.”
“Friday After 5 has kind of led to all of this,” Payne said, referring to the vibrant new downtown. “It showed what could occur if you had something to draw people in where they could meet and gather. It’s an example of what we can be and what’s to come.”
In 2002, the city of Owensboro received $1 million in federal funds for riverfront development. Then-Mayor Waymond Morris planned to use the money to upgrade English Park, but in a meeting with Morris and the City Manager, Kirkpatrick proposed using the funds to add a large overlook patio to RiverPark Center, arguing that the patio would see much more use than English Park. When the City Manager agreed with Kirkpatrick, the Mayor supported the change as well.
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell attended the patio’s grand opening and was so impressed with Owensboro’s riverfront potential that he secured another $40 million in federal funds for development. That money began the revitalization process. Without Friday After 5 demonstrating the need for the patio that brought McConnell here, downtown might still be suffering.
Oh, the name of the City Manager who supported Kirkpatrick in that meeting with Mayor Morris? Ron Payne.
[tw-divider]A Dream Fulfilled[/tw-divider]
While many dreams are never realized, the new downtown is “our dream come true,” Kirkpatrick said. Credit goes partly to him – Payne calls him “the voice of Owensboro” and “Mr. Owensboro” and said, “If you want something done, call Kirk Kirkpatrick” – and partly to many others, including the City and the RiverPark Center. “It’s a great partnership and we’re very grateful to be a part of it,” RiverPark Executive Director Roxi Witt said. “It’s been really neat to see it grow over the last 20 years.”
Kirkpatrick hasn’t missed many Fridays in that time and will only break his current four-year streak for a family reunion later this summer. It’s clear his heart is in downtown Owensboro. “Standing on the side of the stage … the camaraderie and satisfaction of everyone having a good time. It’s just very rewarding,” he said. “The City deserves a lot of credit for what they did downtown. All we did was set it to music.”
As the sun slips below the riverbanks and guests raise their glasses in a toast, dreaming of the future and thankful for the past, they would agree – there’s no better place on a summer Friday night.