There was plenty of rhythm as the Caroline Keller Band took the stage at the intersection of Cherry Street and Sutton Avenue for its Park Rhythms performance, but for the first time in 24 years there was no park.
The Black Mountain summer concert series made its downtown debut on July 18, as the first of three shows set for the new venue got underway.
"I had no expectations coming into this, because it's something we've never done before," said director of Black Mountain Recreation and Parks department Josh Henderson. "I was pleased with how it turned out and I thought our staff did a great job."
The annual seven-week series, which is organized by the recreation department and supported by a combination of town funds and business sponsorships, has been held at Lake Tomahawk since it began in 1995.
In January, a group of local business owners approached Henderson about relocating the event downtown, citing deteriorating conditions at the lake and asserting the lakeside venue took potential customers from the downtown business district. More than 30 businesses supported the move, Marcus Duarte, owner of Red Radish & Little Sprout Carryout told aldermen in May.
Henderson was considering an alternative to the lake at the time, he said, but had yet to find a suitable location. In May the town announced it would hold three concerts — July 18, 25 and Aug. 1 — on a temporary stage downtown. The other four shows — June 20, 27, July 11 and Aug. 8 — would take place on the grassy area on the north end of Lake Tomahawk.
To accommodate the move downtown, Sutton Avenue between Black Mountain and Broadway Avenues, was closed to vehicular traffic at 2 p.m. the day of the show. Cherry Street was also closed south of the public restrooms.
"We closed down the roads at 2 p.m. and immediately got to work on getting cars out so Classic Event Rental could deliver the stage and tent at 3 p.m.," Henderson said. "Once they set that up, the recreation staff began setting up the stuff we provided, like cords, bounce houses and the face painting area for the kids. The band started setting up at 5 p.m."
Kim Weeks, who owns Bona-Fide Pet Boutique in Cherry Street Square, described business as "unusually slow" after the road closures.
"We would normally be busy on a Thursday afternoon," she said an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. "But with Cherry Street closed to cars, there have also been less people walking by."
Steve Anderson, who owns Mountain Nest Gallery on Cherry Street, agreed.
"This would typically be a busy day for us," he said. "But closing the road at 2 p.m. really hurt our business today. Our walk-in traffic really dried up."
However, both business owners expressed support for moving the concert downtown.
"I think it's a great idea to hold Park Rhythms downtown," said Anderson, whose gallery featuring regional art and hand-crafted goods extends its business hours until 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday during the summer. "But it feels like we were hours ahead of where we needed to be as far as the road closures are concerned."
Weeks was one of several downtown business owners who extended their business hours specifically for the event.
"I'm going to give it a little while," she said. "This is a first for everyone involved so it's going to take some time to sort everything out and see what works."
Other businesses like BAD Craft, North Fork Kitchen and the Black Mountain Ale House, among others, were busy in the hours before the concert began.
"I talked to the owner at Epic Cycles on Sutton Avenue and he put bikes out front, marked them down and capitalized on the fact that people could test them right there on the street," Henderson said. "He said he did well yesterday afternoon, despite the streets being closed."
He welcomes the feedback from the business owners and encourages people to participate in the survey offered on the Black Mountain Recreation Facebook page, but added there are limited options when it comes to the street closure.
"The logistics of setting up a concert down there make it necessary because we can't have traffic coming through as we're working on setting everything up," Henderson said.
While the overall attendance was not calculated, according to Henderson, the crowd was comparable to the three events at Lake Tomahawk this year.
"It's a little harder to tell downtown because if you look around, a lot of the local businesses were full as the concert began," he said. "As far as people out in the street, the crowd was similar to what we've seen at the lake this year."
As many as 75 spectators set up chairs on Cherry Street facing the stage below, while others sat in benches on sidewalks.
"There were also children playing in the bouncy house, getting their faces painted and doing chalk drawings the whole time," Henderson said. "It felt like a pretty good turnout, especially considering it was the first one held there."
That success can be built upon over time, he added.
"I foresee this being a good location for some of the concerts," Henderson said. "I think the crowds will continue to grow as more people become aware of the downtown shows."
The town has no plans to abandon Lake Tomahawk as a venue for Park Rhythms, according to Henderson.
"We're not looking to move Park Rhythms downtown permanently," he said. "If these shows continue to go well we'll look at possibly alternating between downtown and the lake, but we're not wanting to burden businesses week after week. We want to do something that works well for everyone."