Summer Stage livens up campustown for day of music

With campustown businesses bereft of a majority of their student patrons, the Champaign Center Partnership (CCP) invited the city’s non-campustown residents to Green Street on Saturday for family fun, music and a showcase of Green Street’s prime establishments.

T.J. Blakeman, executive director of the CCP, spearheaded the Summer Stage festival as a means of bringing a focus to campustown’s business district.

“Our whole goal is to highlight campustown,” he said. “It’s really to put the focus back, especially in the summer when the students leave; the businesses sometimes struggle because all the students leave, and this is a great chance to reintroduce the community back into the campustown.”

The city accommodated by closing off Green Street from Wright to Sixth, allowing for a stage, located on the west side of the Green and Wright intersection, and tables to be set up in the street along the block. The city also passed an ordinance allowing alcohol on the sectioned off area for Saturday only. Murphy’s, Zorba’s and Brother’s were the three establishments within the blocked off area and were allowed to sell alcohol to people outdoors. Blakeman called the exceptional ordinance “a first.”

“We haven’t done that in campustown, and there was a lot of hesitation by folks, but I firmly believe that when done right in this context of a real community-driven event, I have no problems with that,” Blakeman said.

Mayor Don Gerard was in attendance, and as the city’s liquor commissioner, was responsible for the ordinance that allowed alcohol to become part of the outdoor festival.

“Part of my initiative as the liquor commissioner was, ‘Let’s treat people like adults, give them opportunities and in kind if they respond like adults then we can have fun stuff,’” Gerard said. “It’s really basic kindergarten stuff. If everybody plays by the rules and does their part and behaves, then we can have nice things. I think this is a nice thing.”

Many other businesses stepped outside to sell food, soft drinks or other products. Gameday Spirit, located just beyond the blocked off area, featured sales racks outdoors and invited Illini head football coach Tim Beckman to come and sign autographs, which he did from 5 to 6 p.m.

Beckman, who has spent his time on campus getting acclimated to the C-U community, enjoyed the chance to interact with the fans.

“It’s been only six months, so there’s a lot more to learn, of course, but this community’s been arms open, they’ve been very friendly. Reminds me a lot of Stillwater, Okla.,” said Beckman, referring to the city where he spent two years as defensive coordinator of the Oklahoma State University football team. “It’s just a great family, town atmosphere.”

At 6 p.m., The Dirty Feathers took to the Summer Stage to set off the block of six bands slated to perform for the outdoor festival. Blakeman coordinated with Pygmalion Music Festival organizer and Nicodemus Agency founder Seth Fein to book the bands, all of which will be performing at Pygmalion this September.

“It took a little convincing to let me book these type of rock bands,” Fein said. “I asked them to just let me try to do it with the indie rock scene in town, they wanted to know if there would be any dancing, I told them, ‘No. Probably not,’ but that there’d be a good crowd and that there was enough energy in the local music scene.”

After generally agreeable weather conditions held up for most of the day, the final act, Elsinore, was moved from the Summer Stage to Joe’s Brewery to avoid an oncoming rainstorm. For the musicians who got to perform at the outdoor stage, however, the event was a great opportunity.

Vivian McConnell is a singer and guitarist for two of C-U’s more prominent local bands, Grandkids and Santah, both of which performed Saturday — Grandkids as part of the Summer Stage slate and Santah as a closing act for the post-festival show at Joe’s Brewery. Given her deep roots in the region’s music community, playing for the permanent local residents was something she relished.

“It’s incredible. I’m so happy something like this is happening because there hasn’t been music on Green Street in a really long time and I would love it if someone opened a venue because the only venue on campus is Canopy Club and a lot of people don’t even know that that exists either,” she said. “So this is just super awesome, also for bringing the community together and bringing people on to campus.”

For Fein, he sees Summer Stage and Pygmalion as opportunities to reach the community and give it a good time, but also to bring together the downtown and campustown crowds. Likewise, Fein is a huge supporter of the CCP’s initiative.

“I think ultimately what they wanna do is create a seamless transition between campustown and downtown,” Fein said. “It’s really not that far. John Daly could probably drive a golf ball between the two. But there seems to be this divide.”

Gerard also wholeheartedly supports the CCP’s efforts to integrate Champaign’s separate districts.

“They are looking to really reinvent Champaign in terms of how we do commerce, and how we grow our economy and I’m all for it, I’m right on board with their vision,” he said. “We’re looking at a similar initiative in downtown Champaign, in fact, to where we’d like to take advantage of our sidewalk cafes by closing off the street parking, possibly closing off streets. I think it’s a great thing, this type of community in the summertime to have an open plaza like this.”

Though the event was not tabbed as the inauguration of an annual festivity, Blakeman drew cheers from the crowd that filled the block when, at the end of his announcement, he offered, “And we’ll see you next year.”