Learning from Concord: a festival for downtown

Starting today, downtown Concord will host its 40th annual Market Days Festival, which runs for three days through Saturday July 19. The festival is a celebration of the Capital City’s downtown, with Main Street closed to traffic and sidewalks lined with vendors and entertainment.

Local businesses and organizations apparently saw the value in putting themselves in front of the more than 50,000 people who attended last year, as this year’s festival will host nearly 200 booths, tents, stages, miniature golf courses and even a temporary park. As NHPR reports, in addition to the “sidewalk sales, food vendors, live music, and other activities,” the event heightens a sense of community in downtown Concord.

It begs the question: if Concord, a city of little over 40,000 people, can pull of such an event, why can’t Manchester? Next weekend, Arms Park will host the first annual Granite State Brewers Association Summer Festival, and Intown Manchester runs the ongoing Summer Concert Series in Veterans Park, but there’s no event in Manchester that captures the same spirit of celebration, community and even commerce as the Market Days Festival in Concord.

Jazz & Blues Festival on Hanover St, early 2000s
Jazz & Blues Festival on Hanover St, early 2000s

During his time as mayor, Robert Baines, along with the Hippo and others, spearhead the Jazz & Blues Festival, which ran for a weekend each summer for a number of years in the early 2000s. The festival featured musicians on several stages on and around Hanover Street, but it also provided a showcase for local businesses and organizations. And it offered a reason for people of all ages and walks of life to congregate downtown. It was such a hit that years after it was last held, it is still touted on websites from the MEDO (the City’s Economic Development Office)’s profile of downtown to Kiplinger’s list of the 10 best cities for retirees. It wasn’t just a celebration of music it showcased, but of downtown Manchester itself.

Diners fill Hanover Street on a recent weekend night – photo by Ray Theriault

Nowadays, Hanover Street is closed to traffic every Friday and Saturday night in July and August, and the street fills with pedestrians, diners and musicians once more. And while such a festive atmosphere is a very positive development and good for downtown in general, some businesses elsewhere in downtown have lamented that the current situation mostly benefits Hanover Street businesses. Some have suggested closing other streets downtown, such as one in the Gaslight District or even Elm Street, perhaps on a rotating basis. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s important for any event, festival or even temporarily pedestrianized street to be well-established before it starts moving around.

Parking lots on Franklin Street could host vendors, stages or even mini golf during a downtown festival
Parking lots on Franklin Street could host vendors, stages or even mini golf during a downtown festival

One possible way to make summer Friday and Saturday nights on Hanover Street both more beneficial to all downtown businesses, and more visible would be to extend the closure all the way to Elm Street and invite other downtown businesses to set up booths on the street like those at Concord’s Market Days Festival. That might not be feasible to do every weekend of the summer, but perhaps for one or a few weekends, the Hanover Street closure could become more of a festival to celebrate all that downtown has to offer.

Another idea would be to bring back the Jazz & Blues Festival or River Fest, which used to be held in Arms Park, or to create an entirely new festival to bring people downtown. Wherever and whenever a festival is held downtown, it benefits the entire area by drawing more people to the area and making downtown a more exciting destination–or a place to live. Just as the brewers’ festival will be a welcome celebration of the state’s burgeoning craft brewing scene–and a boon to downtown businesses before and after the festival–a festival in the mold of Concord’s Market Days could be a celebration of downtown and the Queen City itself.

If you have a chance, swing up to Concord and check out its Market Days Festival this weekend. Imagine Elm Street, Hanover Street, Market Street, the Gaslight District, Arms Park or anywhere else you like downtown lined with vendors, with stages and performers dotting the edges; imagine the city coming out to celebrate its vibrant, diverse and exciting downtown on a beautiful summer day.

Fun at Concord's Market Days Festival - photo by Nikki McLeod
Fun at Concord’s Market Days Festival – photo by Nikki McLeod

2 thoughts on “Learning from Concord: a festival for downtown

  1. I think a great summer activity would be to show movies for free in Veterans Park after the sun goes down. I can’t imagine an activity like that would cost very much to put on, so it would be easy to ask local businesses to be sponsors. The movies could be general classics like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, The Muppet Movies

    1. We completely agree, Elizabeth. This summer, LivableMHT posted about outdoor movie screenings in Nashua and Somerville. Downtown Manchester could definitely benefit from a similar activity.

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