Block Party a boon for Main Street business

Block Party a boon for Main Street business

WOONSOCKET - A country band on a low stage beside several store fronts performs a few well known numbers for around 20 new fans. A few steps further down the road, crowds gawk at more than 100 classic automobiles, and munch on clamcakes and chowder, while enjoying an upbeat oldies band dressed in sharp pastel suits for the occasion. Nearby, restaurants have moved their business to the sidewalk, serving everything from weiners and Chinese food to burritos and meat pie to the passersby.

At a little skateshop another block down, boarders do tricks from two ramps to the delight of spectators. Cheerleaders draw a crowd of their own with flips, twists and shouts of celebration in the roadway. Military recruiters challenge the fit to a pull-up competition on a make-shift bar set up for the evening. A hair salon offers temporary coloring for the old and young, and shades of blue, orange and red can be seen in the coifs of many of the 30,000 plus party-goers.

It was just the start of the fun for guests to Woonsocket's 125th anniversary Block Party. With 12 stages, 28 performances and participation by nearly every business along the half-mile stretch, the evening was a feast of sights and sounds as the city put its best foot forward for an evening of revelry.

"I thought the event was really great," said Susan Kirwan, owner of Craft, a shop for skateboards and BMX accessories on Main Street. "I was really energized and pumped by the whole experience."

At dusk, the party really revved up, as lighting revealed eight pieces of original artwork on the city's 72-foot-high replica of the Arc of Triumph, a famous French landmark. Nightflies began a rockstar performance on an elevated stage in the roadway, belting out popular tunes for dancers in the neighboring parking lot. A fire dancer swung a baton of flame by the "Stage of the Arts," while a Michael Jackson impersonator posed for photos with fans. Headliner James Montgomery Band blazed up the main stage, and just when it seemed as though the party couldn't get any livelier, a massive waterfall was triggered from the arch, leaving guests pointing, gasping and shooting photos, clearly impressed.

"It exceeded my expectations," said Albert Beauparlant, party co-chairman. "It was about bringing attention and notoriety to all of the small businesses that are there."

Business owners on Main Street were thrilled by the level of exposure they received on the often sleepy downtown street.

Chris Ireland, owner of Showcase Pro Wrestling, said that despite years of doing fundraisers, birthday parties, training and live events in his shop at 126 Main St., many people are unaware of his presence.

"That is one of the hardest issues facing small business: effective marketing and awareness in the community," said Ireland.

One pair of Block Party guests who stopped in to Main Street Cafe for the first time returned for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, according to what owner Alda Cooke told Beauparlant.

"From what I hear, it was the busiest all of the businesses have been in years," said Beauparlant.

John Chan from Chan's Fine Oriental Dining ran out of rice.

Other businesses, like Craft, benefitted far more from exposure than direct sales.

"People could see who we are and that we're here," said Kirwan, who added that she went out to see the street party on rollerskates.

"I was so busy, it was the only way to see the whole thing," she said.

Asked if they would take part in the Block Party experience again if they had the chance, business owners were quick to say 'yes.'

"I think it's the start of an opportunity for Woonsocket to reinvent itself," said Kirwin. "I want to do anything I can personally to help with that reinvention. You have to think outside the box."

Ireland suggested that the city should hold such events semi-annually as a way to promote and grow downtown.

"Downtown is dead on Sunday," said Ireland, who added that the business community could also benefit from an occasional Main Street farmers market.

According to Beauparlant, the businesses will get the chance to take part in a Block Party once again, in May of 2014. Organizers are already in the process of planning an annual party to be held in spring so as not to conflict with Autumnfest.

"It's a definite thing," said Beauparlant. "We're going to be really strong on the arts."

The event, he says, will be called "The Festival of the Arts Block Party.

Meanwhile, no formal plans are set for taking down the Arc of Triumph, and Beauparlant said several residents have called expressing their desire to see it still standing, and decorated with orange lights for Autumnfest. Currently, the co-chairman is planning a "thank-you barbecue" for everyone who helped to make the event a success, from members of the city's police and highway departments, to the electrical and building inspectors. Volunteers will get the chance to see the waterfall run one more time, and he hopes to set off a small fireworks display.

"It's the whole community that pulled this together," he said.