Was it the Prince tribute band? Was it the ideal fall-like weather? Was it a hurricane week hangover?
No one is sure, but one thing is not in dispute, the crowd that gathered in downtown Columbus last week for the kickoff of the Uptown Columbus, Inc., Friday Night Concert Series was the largest since they started in 2007.
The crowd was estimated at about 3,500 by Uptown Columbus, the non-profit downtown development organization that presents the concert series. By comparison, a full house at at the Bill Heard Theater in the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is about 2,000.
“While we do not have an official count for this or any previous concerts, we believe this is the single largest crowd for a Friday night concert on Broadway,” said Becca Zajak, vice president of marketing and community relations for Uptown Columbus. “We have had larger crowds for RiverFest in Woodruff Park.”
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The crowd filled the 1000 block of Broadway to listen to a Prince tribute band. They filled restaurants and bought beer and other alcoholic beverages from stores and bars that set up on the sidewalk.
Buddy Nelms, who has owns and operates The Loft in the 1000 block of Broadway and promoted many outdoor shows in the area for more than three decades, said it was the largest crowd he has seen for a performance on that stage.
“The last concert I can remember that was close to that was Leon Russell,” Nelms said. “And it wasn’t as many as were there Friday night.”
While Purple Masquerade is not on the level of the late Leon Russell, it wasn’t as much about the music as it was community, Nelms said.
“That crowd was a reflection of our community,” Nelms said. “It was young and old; black, white and Hispanic. What it was, was lovely. And all I saw was a bunch of kindness.”
When a crowd like that gathers in the downtown area for an entertainment event, Nelms will wade through it, assessing who is there and for what reason.
“We had just come through a hurricane, the weather was perfect and I think a lot of people just wanted to be outside doing something,” Nelms said. “I knew some of the people, but there were a lot of faces I didn’t know — and that is exactly what you want.”
For Nelms, there is also a business benefit to gathering like Friday night. He owns The Loft, a restaurant and bar, MaBella’s Italian Steakhouse, as well as Ride On Bikes.
“We kept the bike shop open late and the reason for that is we would like to see more of a thrust toward retail,” Nelms said.
But the bread and butter for concert nights is the the bread and butter — namely the restaurants and bars, Nelms said.
“It was an extreme night for us,” Nelms said of the impact on business to his two restaurants, one right in front of the stage and the other just around the corner from it. “People come in a little early and hang around a little later. I can assure you that you don’t hear any of the restaurants complaining.”
One of the reasons to keep the concerts free is to drive sales for local businesses. For that reason, they prohibit all outside food, beverages —alcoholic & non-alcoholic — and coolers in the 1000 block of Broadway.
Uptown Columbus is spending about $40,000 to present the weekly seven-concert series this fall. Instead of a title sponsor, Uptown has put together an impressive list of businesses will to help fund the series.
The list includes: W.C. Bradley Co., Georgia Power, Aflac, TSYS, CB&T/Synovus, Columbus State University, J.W. and Ethel Woodruff Foundation, Columbus Regional, Bickerstaff & Parham, Liberty Utilities, Flournoy Properties, Ken Henson, Circle K, Headquarters Nissan, Coca-Cola Distributing, B&B Beverage, Triangle Beverage and PTAP.
The remaining Friday Night Concert Series events are:
▪ Sept. 22 — Steve Miller Band Tribute
▪ Sept. 29 — Ricky Gunn
▪ Oct. 6 — D.S.O.S. BAND, also known as Deeper Shades of Soul
▪ Oct. 13 —The Grapevine Band
▪ Oct. 20 — Dream Police: The Cheap Trick Tribute
▪ Oct. 27 — Cowboy, Kid Rock Tribute (in Woodruff Park)
“What the Prince Tribute band has shown us is that this can be more than a concert, it can be an event,” Uptown Columbus Inc., President Ross Horner said.
And that is crucial because the concerts are privately funded and intended to attract customers and business to the downtown restaurants and stores, Horner said. And going heavy on the tribute bands that feature a superstar performer’s hit list is one way to attract a crowd, Horner said.
“I am just trying to bring as many people as I can to uptown for these free concerts,” Horner said. “And the tribute bands are certainly one way to do that.”