BENNINGTON >> On a typical week day, downtown businesses close up shop around dinner time, but not on First Fridays.
The four-month, First Friday program returns July 1 in which various retail establishments and art groups will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. offering activities, live music, sales, and food and drink specials.
Major activities and entertainment include Bennington Museum offering "pay what you wish" admission, Vermont Arts Exchange's jazz concert at the Masonic Hall for $10, Oldcastle Theatre's open rehearsal for "Big River" for free, a folk concert at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington for $15, a farewell party for baby chocolate moose Ethan at the Village Chocolate Shoppe, blues music performance at Knapp's Toys, Hobbies and Music, kids estimation challenge at Evans' News, "Magic" gaming at Gamers Grotto, exhibit at Paula's Weaving Workshop and live music for free at South Street Cafe.
"I'm for anything that brings people downtown," Nick Monte, Chocolate Shoppe owner said. "It definitely has an impact on businesses. We need to give people a reason to come downtown. I was excited when I heard others wanted to participate."
The shoppe is known for its chocolate moose on display and having the world's largest peanut butter cup. There will be a farewell party for the youngest chocolate moose, Ethan, as he'll be transferred to the other chocolate store in East Arlington. Last year there was a party welcoming Ethan.
Even after the First Friday, the shoppe holds events and stays open until 8 p.m. Funtastic Fridays is a collection of fundraisers every Friday from July 1 to Sept. 4. There will be a Native American night, make your own candy bar night, an ice cream buffet and chocolate game night, to name a few. The store is usually open until 6 p.m.
"When the chamber started doing it (First Fridays) years ago, we were fairly successful, but others lost interest," Monte said. "We're getting an average of 100 people. We have a lot of fun with it. It's designed to be a family thing."
About six art galleries scattered around downtown make up a tour and walk for visitors.
"Arts are critical to the local economy," Better Bennington Corporation (BBC) Executive Director John Shanahan said. "It's our way of promoting the arts. It's a cultural amenity. Because of it, people are employed. It's a business as well."
Linda Masten is an oil and pastel painter and occupies part of the Bennington Art Guild at 339 Main St. Every First Friday the space will honor an artist of the month, where they'll be present on the night of the event. This month is Bennington native Suzanne Francke who hand spins yarn and creates woven baskets.
The guild is a non-profit cooperative of artists open from Thursday to Sunday. Refreshments will be offered during First Friday and there will be a sale shelf of artwork.
"I wish they would emphasize art more," Masten said. "We're kind of on the off-beaten path."
She explained that even with people going to Oldcastle next door, the guild lacks business. It used to be located on South Street for 13 years.
Every month the BBC has a meeting with downtown businesses, called coffee connections. The impact of First Friday is a "perception thing," Shanahan said.
"It's a fun night to be downtown," he said. "I love BAE and couldn't be more excited about them coming back. They brought so much life back to the Masonic Hall. So it's not just shopping. Downtown is the heart of the community. We want people to come down, support local businesses and promote the arts."
He said some businesses are already staying open later for summer hours.
Typically, the first event is slow with participants, picks up in August, slows back down in September when students return to school, and then gains attention again in October with help from the colleges, Shanahan said.
In August, the Homebrew Festival and Southern Vermont Art & Craft Festival will happen as well.
First Friday occurs downtown from 5 to 8 p.m. every first Friday of the month from July to October. For more information visit betterbennington.com.
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.