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Joe Downtown: Southern Wine’s First Friday sponsorship could signal bigger changes

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Artful partners? Southern Wine’s recently announced sponsorship of First Friday could have far-reaching effects.
Leila Navidi

The evolution of First Friday seems to spring eternal. A few months ago, it moved its offices into the Emergency Arts building. Though it had been holding Downtown meetings for at least the previous year, this move caught everyone’s attention, because Emergency Arts is a cornerstone on East Fremont Street, the Monopoly board of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project.

Hsieh and partners purchased First Friday almost three years ago, and the recent move had people wondering: Will First Friday, an art walk/street festival, eventually uproot from its origins in the Arts District and move to East Fremont? That wouldn’t be a bad thing for Downtown Project, of course. It has a growing cadre of businesses on Fremont that could use the once-a-month injection of 25,000-30,000 people who roam the Arts District each First Friday.

Back to that in a minute.

The festival also announced this week that Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada is now a First Friday sponsor. First Friday has always been a community event. However, support by Southern Wine, whose general manager is Larry Ruvo, founder of Keep Memory Alive Foundation and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, serves notice that even as it has grown, the festival remains connected to its roots.

Spokesman Charles Ressler says that “as of right now, there are no plans” to move any part of First Friday toward Fremont Street. He calls Southern’s sponsorship “a nod to First Friday as a community event. Southern Wine & Spirits has been leading the charge for community activation for years, and it’s a real testament to the work we’ve done with First Friday that it wants to engage with us.”

Ressler adds that Southern Wine considers First Friday “an important community event that, by partnering with us, can be made into one of the most important in our city.”

Sponsorships are important to First Friday for another reason. The event comes with heavy security expenses and is reliant in part on fees collected from artists and food vendors who lease space during the event. Although the festival already has prominent local sponsors—Health Plan of Nevada, for one—Southern Wine would be a big hitter. Might that translate into residents who live in Summerlin and Henderson taking notice of what’s going on down here?

Downtown residents will certainly be watching. They’ll be asking if Southern Wine’s involvement with First Friday—which launched more than a decade ago with just a few hundred people—coupled with the recent move into the Emergency Arts building, might signal a bigger change—perhaps the eventual shift of the festival from the Arts District to East Fremont.

It wouldn’t be a complete surprise. When Hsieh and others purchased First Friday in the fall of 2011, the Review-Journal reported that their intentions included an expansion to “other Downtown areas.” Wes Myles, who owns the Arts Factory, considers the idea inevitable—and he welcomes it. “I send them a text every month that says, ‘Please, leave us alone,’” Myles said earlier this week. “We used to have a nice adult crowd. Now we have kids.” He also isn’t happy about the First Friday food and other vendors he believes are positioned so close to his restaurant, Bar & Bistro. “Why would I want that?”

Myles’ belief that the move will happen stems, in part, from Hsieh’s announcement earlier this year that Downtown Project was removing “return on community” from its company literature. Hsieh said the concept confused people, adding that Downtown Project is “not a charity.”

Or, as Myles interprets: “‘We have to make money.’ Like we didn’t know that.”

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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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