A New Generation on Main Street:

Staunton’s “Kids’ Night Out” Engages Youth

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Often, Main Streets can seem like adult playgrounds. Restaurants, shops, grocery stores, bars—there’s plenty for mom and dad, but where do younger generations of eager patrons fit in? How can Main Street communities find space for children and young adults in the bustle of a healthy downtown?

The Downtown Development Association (SDDA) in Staunton, Virginia, a GAMSA community, has found an innovative way to make its youth community an integral part of Main Street life: Kids’ Night Out. “We’ve found that in the summertime, families are always looking for something to do in the evenings,” says Julie Markowitz, executive director of SDDA, “and this event seems to fit the bill in many ways.”

Staunton’s second annual Kids’ Night Out was hosted July 8th, from 6 to 9 p.m. Among the night’s many attractions, the SDDA turned a large parking lot into a central fairground with free entertainment like juggling, unicycles, mini llamas (well, they actually didn’t make it to this event), local firefighters showing off their trucks and giving away helmets, and wagon rides. “It worked really well,” says Markowitz. “Parents came down for a nice evening out, and there were lots of activities for their kids to do. It served a double purpose!”

Indeed, as parents grabbed a dinner deal at a local eatery, kids took advantage of free giveaways, storytelling, and other great promotions from downtown shops. Though the llamas may have drawn quite a crowd, it was really the participation of Staunton business owners that made the night. Under the guise of providing a full schedule of summer evening activities downtown for local residents, there is an underlying economic restructuring strategy. “One of our biggest goals is getting stores to stay open until 9 p.m. on Fridays from July to December, which we encourage through our promotional events,” says Markowitz.

The SDDA hosts a variety of events that both engage business owners and bring children into the downtown area. They have an annual Halloween Party where kids trick-or-treat from store to store, and “Hop Along the Bunny Trail,” an interactive egg hunt for Easter. Generally, these events draw hundreds of families. According to Markowitz, Kids’ Night Out is especially successful because SDDA volunteers pass out flyers during Staunton’s popular Fourth of July parade.

Though younger children seem to have it made in Staunton, teens are definitely not forgotten. The SDDA helps plan outdoor entertainment on weekends from mid-August through October, and some talented youngsters even get to showcase their talents in these performances. The downtown also has several affordable and relaxed restaurants such as the Split Banana ice cream shop that have become popular haunts for the teen set. Markowitz emphasizes the role of the city’s excellent transportation system in attracting younger patrons; teens have easy access to the downtown area during evenings and weekends. “We try to give youth a sense of placemake downtown feel like a home for them,” says Markowitz.

These conscious efforts to engage Main Street’s younger generations has certainly paid off for Staunton. When asked if events like Kids’ Night Out have succeeded in bringing younger patrons downtown on a consistent basis, Markowitz replies without hesitation “Absolutely!”