Megan Whilden takes final tour of Third Thursday as city official
PITTSFIELD -- As Third Thursday enters its eighth season, Megan Whilden is always amazed that Berkshire County's largest block party draws thousands of men, women and children to downtown Pittsfield.
"Every Third Thursday I step out to start walking North Street and can't believe all these people come out," she said, looking over a packed North Street from Park Square to Maplewood Avenue.
A driving force behind the May-to-October event, Whilden on Thursday evening watched over her final Third Thursday as the city's cultural development director. The California native resigns her post effective today and will take a few weeks off before taking over June 2 as the director of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.
Since Whilden announced her resignation a month ago, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi has been searching for a new cultural development director, advertised with a salary range of $45,000 to $50,000.
Appointed by former Mayor James M. Ruberto in January 2005, Whilden's first big undertaking was Third Thursday which brings together local merchants, performing and visual artists. The event was an attempt to return North Street to its heyday when General Electric employees and their families drove the local economy.
"We chose Thursday because that was payday at GE and people would come downtown, cash their checks, stores would stay open late and there would be thousands of people on the sidewalks," Whilden said. "People thought that would never happen again, so people were excited when Third Thursday took off."
Whilden says the key to Third Thursday's success is keeping it fresh with monthly themes, adding new activities and showcasing local musical talent, especially young people such as Sarah Elizabeth Rayner, of Pittsfield. The 18-year-old student at Western new England University has played her guitar at the previous three Third Thursdays.
"The atmosphere here is so different from the [indoor] venues I play," Rayner said. "People are out having fun and a good time."
Third Thursday's most significant change came in 2010 when city officials decide to close North Street from Park Square to Maplewood Avenue to vehicular traffic from June through September, making it 100 percent pedestrian friendly. The next year, the road closure became permanent for all six monthly gatherings.
"The first time we did it, I saw a line of wheelchairs going down North Street -- I knew we had made the right decision," she said.
Third Thursday has been an economic boost to most downtown businesses, especially those just starting out.
Maria and Kris Sekowski say the monthly block party has helped them cultivate a loyal following since relocating their deli, Maria's European Delights, to North Street from Great Barrington, 16 months ago.
"Every time different people come in; it helps bring in business" said Maria Sekowski, as she and her husband served up foot-long kielbasa grinders with deli mustard and homemade sauerkraut.
Whilden says she can't wait for the next Third Thursday, June 19, so she can attend simply as a visitor, not a city official.
"I won't have to worry about everything, especially the weather," she said, "but it may be hard not to worry."
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