So, Elk Grove Patch stopped work early Friday afternoon and wandered over to Old Town to catch some of the First Friday festivities. We stopped for a croissandwich at first, and at about 4:45 peeked our head out and realized that there were no festivities.
No booths set up on the sidewalk. No crowds or doughnut vendors or any of the other typical signs of the monthly evening fair that showcases the area’s small businesses.
And the merchants on Elk Grove Blvd seemed as stumped as we were.
Cheryl Griess, who runs the , was driving past the corner of Elk Grove Blvd and Elk Grove Florin Road Friday when she noticed that the flashing light board that usually announces First Friday was missing.
“There was no marquee board, and I thought ‘Oh, the city forgot to do that,’ “ she said. “Then I saw that there were no vendors and I thought, ‘Oh no.’ “
It wasn’t until Griess got to the gallery that another store owner told her the event had been canceled. While rumors were flying Friday that city regulations were to blame, representatives of the nonprofit Old Town Elk Grove Foundation, which puts on the event, said the real culprit was rising insurance costs.
The Foundation’s insurance consultant told board members at their meeting Tuesday that the event was underinsured, said Foundation President Howard Sihner.
“The street closes for other festivals, like the Dickens Faire and the Chili Cook Off,” said Sihner. But on First Fridays, he said, Elk Grove Blvd is open to traffic, the sidewalks are packed with crowds, and there are no crossing guards.
“The risk factor is really high,” he said.
Why had the problem just come to light, after a year and a half of First Friday events?
Sihner wasn’t sure. What he was sure about was that the Foundation couldn’t afford to increase coverage. Though the agent didn’t quote a specific price, Sihner said board members “batted around numbers” and estimated it would cost an extra $6,000 per year. They voted to postpone the event until funds could be raised.
News began trickling out Wednesday to store owners, some of whom had brought in holiday decorations and even musicians for the event. The abrupt cancellation, they said, left them feeling like jilted prom dates: all dolled up with no one to show off for.
Foundation board members said they were already planning to suspend First Fridays from January through March in order to revamp the event. They want to focus on local crafts, get rid of the out-of-town salespeople hawking commercial products and services, and put in place a new registration process for street vendors, who currently pay no fees and sometimes show up without permits.
When the insurance problem came to light, Sihner said, they simply moved their plans up a month.
But that decision didn’t sit well with some shop owners, who questioned whether more could have been done to save the street fair.
“To have this happen in December, our best month, is very frustrating,” said David Hipskind, owner of antique shop . “If [board members] had called me and said, ‘We’re going to talk about First Friday on Tuesday night,’ I’d have rearranged my schedule and gone to the meeting."
Hipskind, who helped organize this year’s Elk Grove Chili Cook Off, said the change left him so upset he’s thinking about creating a local retailers’ association as an alternative to the Foundation. The group could coordinate open houses and sidewalk sales, he said.
“We as merchants have to rally together to get anything done,” Hipskind said.
Sihner said he understands the complaints he’s gotten from vendors and store owners, who can become members of the Foundation by paying monthly dues.
“[First Friday] didn’t cost them anything and it was a golden opportunity to make a lot of money,” he said. “But the Foundation was the one hanging out there with the liability.”
The Foundation intends to ask city government for help with the insurance costs, Sihner said.
On Friday, many stores bravely planned to stay open until 9:00 p.m., the traditional First Friday closing time. But as of 6:00, the boulevard was mostly empty, save for a brass band playing on one street corner.
At the Elk Grove Fine Arts Center, a handful of dejected artists clustered around a barely-touched buffet of cookies, crackers and cheese.
“People should be here shopping,” said Betty Warmdahl, whose mixed-media seascapes were displayed on a nearby wall. “We’re waiting for them.”