By Jeff Keeling
When the popular “alt country” band Yarn steps onto the amphitheater stage at Founders Park May 13 and begins belting out tunes for this year’s first “Founders After 5” free concert, it’ll be kicking off a 17-concert series that will include some new bells and whistles in its second season.
Perhaps that’s to be expected, considering the rapid changes that continue to unfold in Johnson City’s downtown district. One of those changes – the recent opening of the farmers market pavilion a short hop from the amphitheater – will positively affect this year’s series, with nightly “talent sponsors” getting use of the pavilion for the evening.
With the exception of the first Friday each month, this year’s concerts will run from May through September, with bands playing two sets from 6-8 p.m.
“This is a good way to highlight all the changes that have taken place in the past eight, 10 months in that corridor (between downtown and East Tennessee State University),” Dianna Cantler said last week. Cantler is the downtown development director for the Washington County Economic Development Council, and organized the concert series last year.
“Founders After 5 is meant to bring the community together and introduce them to downtown,” said Cantler, who added that she picked up the idea on a trip to Greenville, S.C. shortly before she started her job in mid-2014.
Somewhat like Johnson City, Greenville opened up a formerly enclosed creek downtown and developed green space.
“One of the things they did was a Friday night concert series,” Cantler said. “They didn’t really have people working downtown, so it was a way to drive people downtown.”
The Johnson City version started small – five Fridays last May. Bands, booked by Willow Tree Coffee House owner Teri Dosher, played two sets, with an independent act in between. Sponsors allowed the shows to be free, and draft beer sales were done by volunteers from local non-profits, with the proceeds benefiting those causes.
The concerts drew several hundred people each, and no one wanted it to end.
“As we got to the last Friday night, people were begging for it to continue through the summer,” Cantler said.
She went back to Dosher, who she said has been “exceptional” in getting good acts for reasonable cost, and Founders After 5 returned for nine more concerts from August through mid-October.
By the end of the season, 350 to 400 people were gathering to watch the bands, which wrapped up in time for concert-goers to stroll around downtown and grab dinner or drinks.
“We really encourage people after the concerts are over to stay and enjoy our restaurants, and some of the other music, arts and night life that’s available,” Cantler said.
There is more for people to see this year. Cantler said the city’s investment in parks, flood control, street beautification and other infrastructure has combined with private sector growth. She said 10 new retail establishments have opened downtown within the past 14 months.
“People are feeling more comfortable to take the risk, because we’ve got more and more foot traffic downtown,” she said. “Retailers are also staying open later into the evenings, when people are walking around after they’ve come downtown to eat.”
This year’s series will be split into halves. The early summer premier sponsor is Holston Distributing. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has secured one of two gold sponsorships ($2,000) available. The new nightly “talent sponsorship” cost is $800. Non-profits will continue to benefit from the beer sales.
After Yarn May 13, the concerts through June 10 will feature: Bill and the Belles (May 20); Ian Thomas and the Band of Drifters, followed by a later evening concert by ETSU’s Greyscale choral group (May 27); and the Forlorn Strangers (June 10). A full schedule is available on the calendar at downtownjc.com, and the Downtown Johnson City Facebook page will feature an event page for each week’s concert as well.