No, it wasn't a riot or some rare occurrence that brought so many people out that evening. It was AHA! Night — New Bedford's own monthly arts and culture tour de force, and now more than ever, families, couples and folks of all ages on the South Coast are starting to see what all the buzz is about.
While July's 'Kids' Night' is always exceptional in regards to attendance, for the 1,500-3,000 visitors on average who fill the streets every second Thursday night of the month to wander through the trails of festivities, AHA! Night is a few hours of consistently unique, educational and culturally enriching entertainment openly available to them and their families free of charge.
For downtown businesses, AHA! Night is a dependable financial stimulus and a vessel of general good fortune, placing them in the midst of thousands of new faces every month and attaching the universal appeal of artistic culture and interactive fun to their brand. The economic impact that results is undeniable.
"When you really look at New Bedford's development," says AHA! Director Dr. Lee Heald, "you had whaling, then you had the textiles, fishing, and then the next piece of the puzzle is the arts and culture community and 'place-making' or tourism. This really is part of the survival or development strategy for New Bedford at this point and to be successful at it you need to create a climate that's comfortable for the people who are part of the community and from there you'll attract other people, as you become the regional place to be. We are all looking for that face to face, on the street, intimate scale of being together."
According to a report published by the UMASS Center for Policy Analysis in 2009, titled "The Economic Impact of the Vibrant Marketplace in Downtown New Bedford," it was determined that AHA! Nights' free programming generated a total of $634,570 throughout the fiscal year. This means that for every dollar spent out of AHA!'s $289,093 budget for FY09, $2.50 was returned in economic impacts. As the report states, "This result is significant because there was almost no economic activity in downtown New Bedford in Thursday nights before AHA! The majority of cultural institutions and businesses were closed during the evening hours, thus much of the economic activity generated on Thursday nights is a result of AHA!"
AHA!'s fiscal year 2009 budget was, as it continues to be, a mixture of contributions from the Mass Cultural Council, the city of New Bedford, the Island Foundation, the National Park Service, corporate sponsorships, member dues and other partnerships with institutions such as Bristol Community College.
Four years later, though another in-depth study has yet to be conducted, word on the cobblestone street is that the continuous "asset-based community development" project has only been gaining traction, pushing its own boundaries with each coming year.
"In the past five years I've been here I've noticed a growth in enthusiasm for AHA!," says Freestones restaurant owner Joe Costa. "There's a lot more people showing up and a lot more programming going on. I've watched a general growth in downtown period and I feel AHA! is responsible for a big part of that. There's a lot of other things too like the festivals and everything but AHA! is the most consistent and I think that really helps."
As Costa has noticed, AHA!'s family-focused programming brings together generations of fun-seekers from New Bedford and beyond. "Freestone's is 34 years old and because of that I can have a grandmother, her children and her grandchildren at one table. So with AHA! I think the kids whose parents have introduced them to this will grow up and already know where to take their kids on that Thursday night."
Perhaps one of its most impressive elements is the sense of camaraderie that can be observed between downtown businesses that might usually see each other as competition.
According to Heald, this spirit of mutual benefit is the norm amongst the partners. "The businesses cooperate and recommend the other partners as possible-next stops to visitors because they see themselves as part of this connected space and they speak well of each other," says Heald. "It's quite remarkable."
Owner of Café Arpeggio and one of AHA!'s earliest partners Rob Gould doesn't think twice to reach out to a business he believes might need a helping hand.
"With businesses in general, it's very hard to get people to have the kind of mindset the partners have because a lot of people are so self-centered, but that's not the spirit of AHA!," Gould says. "For example, if a gallery is on the outskirts of AHA! Night and they're not getting a lot of traffic I might say 'Well, why don't you put some of your pieces in the café? We fill up early—a lot of people will see it,' and in return they'll take some of my menus and put them down there; so everybody helps everybody to succeed and really AHA! is what holds everything together."
Another trend that's come along with AHA! is organizations aligning their own events and programming to land on an AHA! night to benefit from the extra foot traffic.
"The New Bedford Art Museum schedules exhibition openings, lectures, and special receptions to coincide with AHA! Night to best reach the community with free programming and fulfill its mission to engage the public in experiencing, understanding and appreciating art," says former NBAM Director Jennifer Lagrotteria. "The average attendance for the museum is 600 members and visitors a month including the 180-250 visitors who visit on AHA! night."
As AHA! has become the potent, all-inclusive revitalizer of creative energy and genuine goodwill known today, its supporters are optimistic that the movement will continue to cultivate ways to thrive and sustain itself for the greater good of the city both from an economic aspect and a cultural one.
"As more businesses come downtown and more of a mix happens AHA! will continue to grow like it has been," says Gould. "It can't happen with just non-profits, or just restaurants, etc. — It has to be a mix of businesses and as I see the mix growing, I see AHA! absolutely growing."
"We're always thinking about the next move," says an ever-enthusiastic Dr. Heald. "I think eventually we would like to move out to different areas of the city and really focus on the resources of those places and think about what arts and culture means there; to look at the architecture and art of the north end, south end, west end, and make people feel welcome like we've been able to do downtown."