On a blustery Saturday morning, just as the first flakes of the season filled the air, it was standing room only in our bike shop. I talked to more people that day than I did in the month(s) prior. Even better was meeting people who never would have come into a bike shop on such a day (if at all). How? Art! On Saturday, November 12, Saint Peter held its inaugural Art Stroll, with 24 local artists and 16 venues, including our bike shop.
What happened at our shop was the scene up and down Main Street (aka Highway 169) as locals mixed with out-of-towners to bring more foot traffic to our historic central business district than any event in recent memory. Hanging those nine paintings by our featured artist – the self-described Painter/Sculptor/Woman of Leisure – brought more people through the door than anything else we have tried.
It is almost a no-brainer for a business to become a venue for such an event. I say almost because there is an opportunity cost for involvement: there is time in set-up/teardown; I got one wheel laced in 8 hours and that was about it for wrenching; and those delicious vegan cupcakes we put out were free, but not to us. But so what! I choose to see the upside.
What do I mean by upside? Art collectors and connoisseurs drink coffee, buy household goods, shop for clothing, and ride bicycles – among other things. Their more salient quality for this discussion is possessing discretionary income and the desire to support local artists and local businesses. (Perhaps we are reaching the point where if you’re not shunning Amazon you are at least feeling a little bad about ordering from them!)
For readers now under the impression that I am a marketing genius, I counter with Exhibit A: our businesses’ (intentional?) lack of a marketing plan. Other than a few fliers we put up announcing our open, and our facade improvements, we are nearly 100% reliant on word-of-mouth, the loyalty of our St. Paul customers, and southern Minnesota’s latent demand for bike shop services. So when offering up our shop as a backdrop for a local artist, I had no idea I would be having casual compare/contrast/discuss conversations about early De Rosas and Pinarellos, or that a sizeable fraction of our patrons that day would be e-bike curious. Then there’s this important disclosure: Amanda, my wife, is one of the trio of Art Stroll organizers. So of course we would participate!
The Art Stroll was our opportunity to give back to a community that has been welcoming and generous to us. When our neighboring businesses are strong, so are we; when we struggle to fill vacant storefronts, we lose viability as a shopping destination. As such, we have a responsibility to help others when we can, and that’s why alongside Judith Foster’s art we featured some of the furniture art of Jovi Thomas, who is just getting her start and in need of exposure. (Perhaps the myopia of altruism will be supplanted by enlightened self-interest next time and Amanda will feature her papercuts and I will try to sell some bike shop t-shirts!)
It is gratifying being part of something that challenges people’s expectations while winning universal acclaim. The closest I’ve come in recent memory was PARK(ing) Day 2015 when I was part of a team that transformed two parking spaces in downtown Washington DC into an oasis for reflection, socializing, people watching and eating delicious berry smoothies. And if I am being honest, I have to say my expectations were challenged as well: I knew we had a lot of talented people here, but I never thought of Saint Peter as an arts destination.
I offer these observations with a bit of remove from the planning and execution of the event. These conclusions are also flavored with a hint of confirmation bias from conclusions I have already drawn about what works and what doesn’t (169!) in downtown Saint Peter. Now without further delay, caveat, preamble, or apology:
People like art. The end result of the creative process is fascinating whether it yields poetry or painting, stained glass or object. Artists should have the opportunity to display and make a living. The public should have an opportunity to view, appreciate and consort with other aficionados. And while not every day can be an Art Stroll day, public art – murals, sculpture, music and other forms of creative expression – can provide such an outlet and connection beyond the confines of an annual event. In short, more public art, please, Saint Peter!
Wayfinding is crucial. A well-designed brochure and a critical mass of destinations within walking distance ensures a well-attended event with prolonged engagement. But giving people things to see is only part of the equation; they need to know how to get there. Central business districts that don’t heed this lesson become one-stop-shops. Fairmont shows Saint Peter how to do it right.
Give people reasons to visit and stay (and they will!). Bars host comedians and bands; coffee shops have poetry readings; bike shops sponsor races – all these things are done to draw people in, in hopes of keeping them there. Without question Third Street Tavern, the Saint Peter Food Co-op and River Rock all rang up a few extra sales thanks to hungry, thirsty art lovers. Now how about we consider designing the public realm with an eye on providing people comfortable places to rest, socialize, drink, eat and otherwise. Act like you want people to hang out downtown by providing shade in summer, warmth in fall and winter, places to rest, and beautiful, interesting things to look at.
What draws people is other people. This is an observation by Holly Whyte upon which the non-profit Project for Public Spaces was founded. As it turns out, and as deprivation during the Pandemic bore out, we want to be around other people. Throngs of people walking down Main Street gets other people interested in doing the same. It indicates a place is interesting and worth exploring. As a side benefit: drivers also notice this and they tend to slow down. And with that begins the virtuous cycle of slower streets making for better sidewalks and better places to do business, have a cup of coffee, or dinner.
A rising tide lifts all businesses. As stated already, but worth reiterating is that when the new brewery is packed, we’re going to be doing great as well. Yup, that’s right, there is a brewery coming to downtown Saint Peter. I am so happy to be the first one to tell you!
Cheers to the 2023 Saint Peter Art Stroll!!!