In just eight months, the concept of shutting down Westerville's main thoroughfare for Mount Carmel St. Ann's 4th Friday events has gone from a trial run to a permanent fixture.
The first celebration of the year was held April 27. And for the first time since last August, the city and the Westerville Visitors and Convention Bureau organized the shutdown of State Street for the event.
Jeff Hartnell, the bureau's executive director, said the organization lobbied hard for the shutdown after the test run during 2017's Dog Days of Summer event, one of the most popular 4th Friday themes.
"The test last August kind of told us that we were headed in the right direction," he said. "All the feedback we got from it -- virtually 99 percent of all comments -- was extremely in favor of it."
Hartnell said he keeps hearing the words "safety" and "strollers" in relation to the logistics of shutting down State Street. He said he's heard families are thrilled to be able to walk more freely and bring their children back to the 4th Friday events.
"A lot of people weren't bringing their kids up anymore because it was so crowded," he said. "The sidewalks were jammed, and they couldn't get around."
That crowding was natural, he said, especially for an event that draws close to 10,000 people each month.
"I've never heard of a successful festival that didn't get crowded and didn't have parking issues," Hartnell said.
"If you have a bad festival, you don't have any parking issues," he said with a laugh. "In our case, it keeps getting bigger and bigger."
While Hartnell doesn't have an exact number of guests for the event, indications are that attendance is going to continue growing.
Hartnell said early estimates suggest that about 11,000 people came to the first 4th Friday of the year compared to about 8,000 that organizers usually expect for the first event.
Westerville spokeswoman Christa Dickey said the city had no negative comments from residents about the event.
She said the event "went smoothly" from the city's perspective, and echoed the sentiments of Hartnell and others.
"Keeping the road closed for this event takes a fair amount of coordination and resources, but with the growth and popularity of 4th Fridays, we are also thinking about safety and comfort of attendees," she said in an email. "The Westerville Visitors and Convention Bureau works hard to make Uptown Westerville shine during 4th Fridays, and it's important for the city to be their partner in that effort."
Merchants in Uptown Westerville said they were happy with the event as well.
For 4th Fridays, Uptown merchants typically stay open late for added business, offering specials.
Debbie Bennati, Westerville Uptown Merchants Association president, said she heard nothing but positives about the event, and the open street allowed extra space for people to wander into the shops.
"A lot of people had said they had stopped going to 4th Fridays because it's become so crowded to get through the streets," she said. "I think they were really excited to go again, especially people with little kids."
Hartnell praised the city for its involvement with closing the street and putting safety procedures in place. He said nothing went wrong, aside from a couple small issues like people parking in prohibited areas, and credited the city for its role.
"Their involvement was direct and very engaged in the entire process," he said. "In the past, we've put through our permits and they would police it for us and sign off on it. But they knew immediately for this thing to be successful, they had to get involved. And they really did."
He also said the vendors, who had to be efficient in tearing down and leaving the street by the time it reopened at 9:15 p.m., deserve credit for being organized and prepared for the new system.
"The cooperation that came out of these vendors was nothing short of phenomenal," he said. "We didn't have a single vendor that complained. They all just busted their butts to get everything taken care of.
"It went so smoothly, it was kind of spooky," he said.
Between April and September, 4th Friday events are held between 6 and 9 p.m. State Street will continue to be closed from East Park Street to West Home Street between 5:30 and 9:15 p.m.
For more information, visit the bureau's website, visit www.Westerville.com.