Preserving First Fridays 

Oakland's signature street festival has hired a professional fundraiser. Can the popular event survive — and stay true to its roots?

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Preparing for Oakland's First Fridays street festival every month is a daunting task. For the six main volunteers coordinating the event — which attracts as many as 10,000 people to the city for its street artists, musical performances, food trucks, vendors, pop-up venues, and much more — it can sometimes feel like a full-time job.

"Everyone is very, very tired," said Isioma Copes, an administrative coordinator with the all-volunteer Oakland First Fridays Community Council. "Right now, we are running on the love of this event and our desire to keep it going. That can only take you so far." The commitment includes attending weekly meetings, securing proper permits, collecting fees from vendors, bringing in new merchants and artists, helping shut down the street each first Friday of the month, and, when possible, collecting donations.

Earlier this year, the community council organizers and representatives of the Koreatown-Northgate (KONO) community benefit district, the financial sponsor of First Fridays, decided that in order to keep the event afloat, something had to change: First Fridays needed a paid fundraiser. After interviewing a handful of candidates over the summer, the organizers last month hired Sarah Kidder, an Oakland-based event coordinator and marketing specialist. The fundraising push by Kidder, who grew up in the East Bay and lives in Uptown, marks a new chapter for First Fridays — and a necessary one.

"My goal is to really allow this to continue," said Kidder. "The money that I'm raising is not for flashy ads or for anything decadent. This is literally to allow the event to happen."

First Fridays is hanging on by a thread, especially given the uncertainty of city funding. The event has evolved dramatically since it first launched eight years ago, most notably when Oakland Art Murmur, the founding nonprofit group that represents dozens of local art venues, decided last year to stop overseeing and paying for the closure of 23rd Street when it was apparent that the festivities were growing out of control.

Without leadership, security, or structure, the event turned into a free-for-all. Revelers began spilling out into the streets, effectively forcing the city to facilitate a street closure and provide public safety services. "Our fear was that something was going to happen that would potentially force the closure of the event, that someone would get hurt," said Samee Roberts, marketing manager at the City of Oakland.

The city took over handling the logistics of First Friday in a pilot program, but earlier this year announced it was withdrawing its management of the event. Today, the city continues to support the street party on a limited basis, but volunteers largely run it. Organizers have scaled it back from its peak last summer, shutting down Telegraph Avenue from 27th Street to West Grand Avenue, instead of to 19th Street. The festival ends at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., which has also decreased costs.

Still, Roberts said the city's marketing department has, since July, spent about $6,000 a month on the event, primarily for police. Last month, in a report to the City Council's Life Enrichment Committee, she outlined a potential budget allocation of $50,000 annually to First Fridays. A more formal recommendation is expected in November, and if the council approves it, it would reimburse Roberts' department for the costs since the summer and cover a majority of city costs for the next year. First Fridays, however, would still have to cover the remainder; organizers estimate a monthly price tag of about $20,000 to run the festival.

That's where Kidder comes in. "If you can't cover police and security ... then you can't have the event," she said. "The immediate goal is to continue this event and be prepared if the city isn't able to help out." Kidder has a three-month contract with KONO to work as a fundraiser and event coordinator for First Fridays, but she said she's hoping she'll be able to work longer than three months and bring in about $250,000 a year.

"It's got such a cachet and is such a draw to the city," she said about First Fridays. "This event allows for so many businesses large and small to be seen and make money in a way they just don't for the rest of the month." So far, she has developed different levels of sponsorship and is actively seeking support from merchants.

"I'm hoping that the businesses that benefit from the increased traffic during First Fridays will support [it] through sponsorships," said Shari Godinez, executive director of KONO. As the Express previously reported, her organization commissioned a survey of brick-and-mortar businesses that showed an increase in their revenues on First Fridays — although the main beneficiaries are mostly bars and restaurants, not art galleries.

Still, that's a lot of money to expect from local businesses. The question is whether the event can rely primarily on revenue from small businesses to be successful. Kidder and First Fridays organizers said they want the grassroots spirit of the event to remain intact, and don't want it to become corporate. "A lot of core members don't want to turn it into the average fair or festival where you see the same vendors every time," said Edward Yoo, a volunteer coordinator who handles food vendors.

"The whole corporate question is, what would be an appropriate sponsor?" added Phil Porter, board president of KONO. "We are really looking for folks that fit into the style and vibe of the event."

After all, part of what makes the festival special is that it's accessible to emerging artists and has an eclectic mix of participants, said Copes, noting that one of her favorite First Fridays purchases was a two-dollar mutant Barbie toy she bought from two young children.

The fact that First Fridays is taking the step to bring in a fundraiser is encouraging, Yoo added. "It's a sign of maturity for the group. ... You really need someone who is skilled who has that expertise. ... We desperately want to grow this event. We want to pay staff."

Kidder put it this way: "It's a sign of the event growing up. Not necessarily changing its soul ... but coming into its own."

While the financial state of First Fridays remains somewhat precarious, most recognize that there's no stopping the festival — even if organizers aren't able to raise the necessary funding. "I don't think you can just shut down this event," Yoo said. "Just because we're not running it doesn't mean people aren't going to show up. People are still going to come out to the street. You're going to have chaos."

"The question is whether the scope and the frequency to date is something that is sustainable over time," added Roberts. "I just don't see this ending. No one wants it to."

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