Smile Politely

The lowdown on live music events in Downtown Champaign

View down an empty street with red brick buildings on either side. There are string lights hanging between the buildings.
Louise Knight-Gibson

NOTE 12:45 p.m., Wednesday, May 22nd: Following the publication of this article, representatives from the City of Champaign contacted the Editorial Board to clarify several points, none of which were available in any public-facing information prior to the publication of this article. 

Readers, please make note the following:

  • There is no more clear bag policy; bag checks and wanding will be used.
  • If you are already in the designated area prior to 9 p.m., you will be asked to visit the security checkpoint to get a wristband.
  • Drink options will be Pour Bros., Seven Saints, and a “portable beverage station.” Food trucks will be parked at the north end of the area.
  • All programming in the entertainment district will begin after Friday Night Live or Toast to Taylor Street programs end, either at 10 or 11 p.m.
  • Private security will no longer be patrolling Downtown Champaign, but instead serve as security for this designated area.
  • There are unofficial social media accounts for The Beat on Facebook and Instagram. We have updated this article to reflect the correct social media account links.

Summer is upon us, and it’s a time in C-U where there’s a definite vibe shift. As we’ve mused, “there’s a flurry of new activity options, but with an undercurrent of ease. Our natural spaces, patios, and downtowns come alive.” We’re specifically thinking about downtowns right now, especially in regards to live music. A couple of weeks ago, the parking lot stage at Rose Bowl Tavern sprung into action for the season, filling Downtown Urbana with the wide variety of acts that grace the nightly venue. But we’re turning our attention to Downtown Champaign because there are some new developments on the horizon for summer entertainment. Back in March, the City of Champaign announced the formation of a “downtown entertainment district” in “an effort to address ‘economic issues stemming from the pandemic years, inappropriate nighttime activities, and perception about Downtown safety’.”

We’ve learned a little bit more of what this is going to look like, including the official name of this endeavor, The Beat. The Beat is on Instagram and Facebook, which don’t offer much information yet, but the City of Champaign website indicates that it will be kicking off May 31st and June 1st, and will happen every Friday and Saturday throughout the summer. We reached out to Bruce Knight, Planning and Development Director for the City of Champaign, to get some details on what this is all about. He shared that there are four main components to the project:

  • Friday Night Live (FNL) will have their programming extended by one hour, running from 6 to 9 p.m. instead of 6 to 8 p.m. The city will also be bringing back the downtown festival district during FNL, so that attendees can get to-go beverages and carry them on the streets in between stages. 
  • There will be a late-night stage on Market Street (between Seven Saints and Pour Brothers) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, with programming done by the city. According to Knight, “It is anticipated that this will be a combination of DJs and diverse musical performers.”
  • They are launching a live entertainment grant program (up to $1,000/event and up to 10 grants per establishment) for downtown businesses to host entertainment in their own establishments.
  • They modified the Special Event Sponsorship Policy adopted last year to expand eligible parties to include for-profit businesses. Applicants for special events on public property can apply for a sponsorship of up to $5,000 per event. 

The late night zone on Market Street would come with additional security measures. Those wishing to take part will need to be over 19 and will need to show ID. There will be a clear bag policy, and everyone will be wanded before entering the area. As noted in the News-Gazette article, there will be a private security company monitoring this area. There will also be “seasonal ‘Safety Specialists’ in the Equity and Engagement department to serve as community support and liaisons with security.”

We have a variety of thoughts and questions about what the city is doing. Let’s start with the positives. As an Editorial Board, we write a lot about the need for more things to do, particularly in our downtown areas, and even more specifically the need for music venues. We are all for programming and events that bring people out to mingle, and that encourage support of local establishments. The return of the downtown festival district is a great thing — we love pedestrian-only spaces and the ability to grab a drink from a participating establishment and wander about. 

We remain critical, as we have in the past, about the security measures the City is putting in place. While we recognize the importance of safety when you are bringing a bunch of people out and about late at night, we’re skeptical of how wanding and implementing a clear bag policy will work: Will people already hanging out in that area before 9 p.m. be made to leave and come back in to pass through security? Will the clear bag policy deter people from entering the area? Also, is there data on how much of a difference the private security and safety monitors have made in the downtown area since they’ve been utilized?

Another question we’re pondering is how this entertainment district is going to impact established music events that are already happening throughout the summer. Toast to Taylor Street, run by Kayla Brown of Firedoll Studio and Carolyn Farren of Farren’s, just launched their fourth year of the monthly block party series that features local and regional talent performing original music, as well as area makers and artisans. Knight shared that The Beat “is intentionally designed to complement [events like Toast to Taylor and Friday Night Live], and in fact the City significantly increased its funding to 40 North to support the expanded FNL, and with the change to the sponsorship policy made Toast to Taylor eligible for funding.” Still, there will be some timing overlap on the Saturdays that Toast to Taylor is happening, and we wonder how that is going to play out. 

We’re curious to see the types of acts that will be frequenting the Market Street stage, and the audience that The Beat is meant for. Knight shared that it was “intended to draw a younger, diverse audience and include people that may not have previously discovered downtown Champaign or found a reason to come downtown.” Lineups for the summer have not yet been announced. Lastly, we’re wondering what the logistics will be like for the Market Street area. Will Pour Brothers be the only option for getting drinks? Or maybe Seven Saints, too? Will there be food trucks nearby? Is there re-entry if people want to leave and come back?

We’re looking forward to summer and more opportunities for people to gather. Though our collective eyebrow may be raised with skepticism about some of the aspects of what the city is trying to do here — as we have been known to do with other city endeavors— we are wishing for success, and that The Beat will have its intended result of bringing more people downtown for a fun and safe time.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

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