MANCHESTER -- Some communities have to be dragged into having a collective, communal burst of fun.
New Orleans -- pre-Katrina, at any rate -- used to be the sort of place that didn't need much of an excuse to party. Manchester, though by nature a more dynamic mix of newcomers and longterm residents than elsewhere in austere northern New England, sometimes has needed a little help to loosen up in a collective way.
Some of the old fairs and town events -- like the big Fourth of July blast at the town's Recreation Park, or the Loyalty Day Parade -- had run out of steam or volunteers.
But Manchester rediscovered its "fun" button last year when it staged not one but two street festivals. Main Street was closed off for a stretch of its downtown core. Out came the dunking tank with town celebrities (town manager, school officials) daring people to trigger a sudden dip into a tub of water. Jugglers, music and sidewalk dining drew more than 2,000 folks downtown to take it all in, visit with their neighbors and have a good time.
The ostensible excuse for all this merriment? For years the town's residents had alternately dreaded and prayed for a fix to one of the main traffic bottlenecks in the community, known with a mixture of humor and exasperation as "Malfunction Junction." On busy weekends -- or sometimes just during the week for no apparent reason -- the intersection of Main Street (Route 7A) and Depot Street (Routes 11 and 30) could see long lines of backed-up vehicles with fuming motorists.
By June of 2013 a traffic rotary known as the Roundabout was finally finished -- on time and on budget. While the Roundabout has its own set of quirks, the resolution of the long-running traffic drama seemed a good excuse to town officials, especially Town Manager John O'Keefe, to throw a party.
Or two. The first street fair was such a success that the town held another in August.
So there was no question that this year the good times would continue to roll, O'Keefe said. On Friday, July 18, the first of another two street fairs will take place, from 6 to 9 p.m. in downtown Manchester. The second one is planned for Friday, Aug. 15, also from 6 to 9 p.m.
"Some people have said we should do this every week," O'Keefe said. "This is town meeting with food and beer."
The "Don't Leave" Band will come back again this year, a group of veteran rockers with day jobs who perform frequently around the area. Bring your boogie shoes. Acrobat John Stork will return. A section of Main Street from the corner of Bonnet Street up to the Thai Basil Restaurant will close for pedestrian milling about. About 25 venders and exhibit booths touting the works of local nonprofits, and some local artisans, will line the street. Alas, no dunk tank this year, however -- the town of Rupert's fire department, which owns the tank, had it committed elsewhere.
"It's a big event to pull off, but if you're going to do it, do it right," O'Keefe said. "It was a lot of work (last year) but not too many headaches."
Town officials first and foremost worry about the traffic problems caused by re-routing cars and trucks around the downtown core, he said. The street will get closed off around 4 p.m. to allow the venders to get set up. But with the right signage, it seemed to go smoothly enough, he said.
Throwing the brace of parties costs about $10,000 all told, with overtime pay and bringing in the entertainment. Townspeople voted to add $4,000 to the town's budget to help offset the costs, and the rest comes from sponsors and fees for the booths, said Tricia Hayes, the town's coordinator for the events.
This year, with the Roundabout a year-old, the fesival aims to show off the downtown and note some of the new vitality seeping in. That sentiment got a major boost recently when the sale of the former main office building for Berkshire Bank was finally completed, and the renovations of the landmark structure, a former opera house, are getting underway. The street fairs also draw residents and visitors to the area and boost exposure of the businesses there, many of which stay open extra hours to reap the benefits of a couple of extra thousand potential customers walking by, she said.
Epoch 18, an artist's collaborative on Main Street, sells artwork made by its members. Both of last year's events gave the artists a chance to meet a whole new group of customers, said Bob Gasperetti, one of the founding members of the organization.
"It was fabulous to show ourselves off to people who didn't even know we were there," he said. "From that standpoint, we were thrilled with both of them and thrilled to be sponsors of this year's too. I'm not normally speechless, but I was speechless last year at how many people were there and having fun."
Epoch 18 will stay open until 9 p.m again this year, he added.
The theme of the first street fair on July 18 is "Hometown Vermont." The second one in August will have a more international flair, with an Irish band named "Get Up, Jack" providing the bulk of the entertainment, Hayes said.
"It's free, it's fun entertainment for the whole family and just a good time," she said. "It celebrates that Manchester is a vibrant place to come to."
If you go ...
What: Downtown street festivals
When: 6 to 9 p.m., Friday, July 18
and Friday, Aug. 15
Where: Main Street, Manchester