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First Friday to celebrate nearly 2 decades in downtown Las Vegas

The streets of downtown Las Vegas will fill with art, culture and people this Friday, just as they have once a month for nearly two decades.

First Friday celebrates its 19th anniversary this week. The monthly Arts District event draws thousands out for a night of food and drink and a chance to check out local artists, entertainers and performers. Its community and economic impact are vital to a recovering city, said Corey Fagan, the executive director of the nonprofit First Friday Foundation, which puts on the monthly festival.

“Art has that special ability to break down any barriers and find that common ground between people of all places in the world,” Fagan said. “First Friday, it belongs to the local community. It’s theirs. And it’s a place where they can just meet their friends and come and explore art and see the creative geniuses that we have that live right here in our city.”

The event went dark for about a year during coronavirus-pandemic restrictions but came back to the Charleston Boulevard area in April. Fagan said a steady increase through the summer has shown her that residents want to be where the action and culture is.

The outdoor festival brings anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 people to the area, depending on the season. Many come ready to support local art and small businesses. Some of the approximately 100 local artists and vendors make most of their rent from the First Friday sales, she said.

The economic activity extends beyond the booths. Doug Rotondi, director of operations for bar-restaurant 18Bin, said they triple staffing to keep up with the increased foot traffic and revenue on festival nights.

“It’s our lifeline,” Rotondi said. “It creates exposure that I think we would not normally have. It adds value economically to the area in an integral way. Without First Friday, I don’t think we’d be able to survive because it gives people a reason to go downtown.”

First Friday began in 2003 as a limited liability company with support from a large donor, Fagan said. When financial support dwindled, the organization became a nonprofit in 2012. Revenue primarily comes from sales at the event — like First Friday bars — and governmental and arts grants. In return, the foundation creates grants for artists and supports arts education through funded field trips for students.

Some Arts District businesses get involved in the nonprofit’s action. CraftHaus Brewery hosted an artists challenge, in which 14 artists submitted designs for a beer’s 32-ounce can. The winner’s art was on the can for three months, and a dollar of each sale benefited the First Friday Foundation, CraftHaus co-owner and founder Wyndee Forrest said.

“We thought it’s a no-brainer partnership with CraftHaus being in the Arts District and First Friday supporting the arts,” Forrest said. “If you really look at craft beer, it is art, just in a liquid format.”

Community support is key to maintaining the event, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said. City involvement helps create a safer and better organized festival, she said.

“When you think of the public-private partnership as a First Friday event, you cannot have that occur without public safety being considered, about transportation and the logistics as (to) how you move people throughout an event or an area,” Goodman said.

This year’s October event falls on the four-year anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting on Oct. 1, 2017. Goodman will speak at the city’s remembrance ceremony in the neighboring Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, and First Friday will broadcast her speech into the festival area just after 10 p.m. Festival staff will pass out electric candles and hold a moment of silence for the victims, Fagan said.

The event will be reminiscent of 2017’s First Friday on Oct. 6 of that year. Fagan remembered not knowing if it was right to go forward with the festival but choosing to encourage community instead of fear. She remembers looking around the crowd and seeing the support between everyone as a sign of the city’s resilience.

“We were bumper to bumper with people, and everybody’s look was the same, like, ‘You’re my brother. You’re my sister, you’re my neighbor, my family, I got you. We’re in this together,’” Fagan said. “And here we are during COVID going through the same type of thing again.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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