Chamber looks to follow lead of other cities with a First Saturday community arts event

By Lynn R. Parks

Last year, for the first time in recent memory, the town of Georgetown held a New Year's Eve celebration. The event, which took place on the Circle in downtown and which was attended by about 500 people, included alcohol.

"We had two beer trucks there, one from the VFW and the other from 16 Mile Brewery" in Georgetown," said Mayor Bill West. "Nobody was out of the way as far as behavior is concerned, there were no arrests by the police. Everybody had a great time and we are planning to do the same thing again this year."

Georgetown also sponsors regular summer concerts, some of them held at a town park, where there is no alcohol, and others at 16 Mile, where beer sales are allowed. At all of the concerts, "we get great crowds," West said.

In Salisbury, the chamber of commerce holds small festivals every month in its downtown Arts and Entertainment District. For the first time in its six-year history, the chamber's Third Fridays featured wine and beer sales this year.

"I won't say that we had more people this year than in past years," said Third Friday volunteer and lead promoter, Jamie Heater. "But the people who came chose to stay longer, and therefore supported our downtown businesses more."

Without alcohol, people often wandered past vendors and then left to go somewhere else, Heater said. "But with a glass of wine in their hand, people feel more comfortable staying. They get in groups, they talk, and they hang out a little bit longer. It isn't a big deal to think that people might want to drink wine while they look at a piece of art."

Even with those people staying longer, "we had no problems," Heater said. "We had no safety concerns, we had no instances of drunkenness, we had no people who had to be cut off from drinking."

Both West and Heater say that their towns' events are not drinking festivals. On the contrary, the events' success is built on the other things that they offer, and the beer and wine is secondary. "Arts, culture and entertainment are our priority," Heater said. "The alcohol is a side note, just the icing on the cake."

"These are social events," West said. "Having beer and wine is something you've got to do to get young people involved."

The Greater Seaford Chamber of Commerce has set its inaugural First Saturday event for Oct. 3. The event, which will be held in downtown in the empty lot behind city hall, will include sales of locally made beer and wine.

At last week's city council meeting, some people voiced their unhappiness with the council's decision to allow the alcohol sales. Because the empty lot is owned by the city, and the city bans consumption of alcohol on its property, the council had to OK the chamber's plan to sell beer and wine. The vote to do so was 4 to 1, with Councilman Dan Henderson casting the lone no vote.

"I believe that we have a moral responsibility to see the potential hazards of open-air drinking," Bob Carey, director of Delmarva Teen Challenge, a Christian organization that treats people with drug and alcohol addictions, told the council.

"It won't be just Pandora's box that will be opened," added Carlton Cannon, minister at the Clarence Street Church of God. "Hell will be opened."

But many owners of businesses in downtown Seaford are willing to give alcohol sales a chance, if they increase the number of visitors there.

Sara Lee Thomas opened the Fantasy Beauty Salon on High Street in downtown Seaford in 1971. She said that she was surprised to learn that alcohol sales were planned to be part of First Saturdays. But "I am comfortable to give it a try," she added.

She said that chamber director Lynn Brocato had assured her that the beer and wine sales will be "closely monitored." She was also pleased to hear that on the first Saturday of December, the same day as the Christmas parade, the chamber's First Saturday event will not include alcohol. "That satisfied me, because we have a lot of young people in downtown on that day," Thomas said.

Thomas said that there's a lot going on in downtown, "but we still do not seem to be getting the jump start that we should be getting. This kind of thing is something that other towns are trying and for our businesses, we should give it a try."

Tammy Kearney and Christina Darby with the Nanticoke River Arts Council agree. The council's Gallery 107 in downtown Seaford holds regular open houses at which wine is served and there has never been a problem there, they said.

"Why is it a bad thing to have locally crafted beer and wine, when every small town has festivals like this and they are one of the most popular things going on?" asked Kearney, vice president of the council. "I think that this is a great idea."

As for the people who spoke at the council meeting against the alcohol sales, "I think that they are overstating their passion for their cause," Kearney said. "If they'd like to set up a Kool-Aid stand next to the First Saturday tent, they are welcome to do that."

"This is a great idea and something that's been needed for a long time," Darby, council president, added. "Anything that the city can do to get some energy going in downtown, it should do. I hope that the First Saturdays are successful and that there are more events like it."

Donn Tyndall is owner of Donn's Hair Alternative on Pine Street. He supports beer and wine sales as part of First Saturday, saying that they will draw more people into downtown than would otherwise come.

"This battle really hit a sore spot with me," Tyndall added. "I, as well as many other volunteers, have put many hours into an effort to bring Seaford back to a place that people will be proud to be a part of. We have come up with ideas that we think might spark some interest, only to be shot down. If alcohol will help, why not give it a try?"

Tyndall said that he respects those who speak out against the alcohol sales because of personal beliefs. "But there are many organizations that use alcohol to raise money for things that benefit the community," he added, including Nanticoke Health Services, food banks and the fire department.

"If an event such as this makes you uncomfortable, do not attend," he said. "There will be other events that hopefully those people will feel comfortable with and will attend."

Laurie Bireley, who lives in Delmar, is one of three teachers at Seaford Dance on High Street. She did not know that First Saturday will include sales of beer and wine. But regardless, she said that the monthly event has the potential to be "awesome."

"I'm hoping that it will build awareness of downtown and the businesses that are there," she added. "Alcohol or not, I still feel that way. And I intend to be there."

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