Launched last June, downtown Milan's 3rd Thursdays events draw 750 to 1,000 people monthly to enjoy live music, food trucks, a beer garden, pop-up shops, and children's activities. But 3rd Thursdays actually originated as a creative way to improve attendance at a far less successful weekly farmers and artisans' market.
Milan Main Street director Jill Tewsley says that Friday evening market had been running for a couple of years but never drew the crowds expected. So organizers came up with a new event that still included the markets but also added new offerings, held just once a month from June through October. They also moved it to the third Thursday of each month, when locals were less likely to be headed out of town for the weekend or have other plans.
"We wanted to give people a reason to come back downtown and connect with our community again," Tewsley says. "3rd Thursdays has really proven people do want a reason to come downtown. They want a reason to shop. They want a reason to hang out with their neighbors and friends and family."
The series has been a success story for the small community, drawing new shoppers and new businesses to downtown Milan. And it's been a community-wide effort, with local businesses, organizations, schools, and churches participating and collaborating.
When the series returns June 21 with a "Music Makers" theme, a small group from the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra (A2SO) will perform and bring the A2SO's "Instrument Petting Zoo" along for kids to check out. Local volunteers from the Milan Public Library, American Heritage Girls, and local preschools and churches will also give kids a chance to make and play their own instruments in the children's area.
New offerings this year include a fashion truck – a sort of boutique on wheels with clothing and accessories, similar in concept to a food truck – and Tuck's Treetop Adventures, offering harnessed, 20-minute climbs high into the trees.
"It's changed the attitude a little bit"
Tewsley says 3rd Thursdays has helped the ongoing revitalization of Milan's downtown. Like many smaller communities, it was hit hard by the Great Recession and had been struggling even years before that. There's been a period of regrowth in recent years thanks to a major mixed-use development project, renewed interest in shopping local, and new specialty businesses opening up, as well as the city's participation in the Michigan Main Street Program.
"It's changed the attitude a little bit about downtown," Tewsley says. "We hear a lot of people say the best thing about these events is to experience their community and actually see people on the streets downtown again."
Latham's Hardware owner Jim Latham says 3rd Thursdays help not only to get customers in the door once a month, but also to create returning customers. Latham bought his long-running "old-school" hardware store at 37 W. Main St. 20 years ago. He says 3rd Thursdays have been a fun way to help promote his store, which he sees as having developed new interest from younger people interested in supporting small businesses.
Ryan Wilman, owner of The Owl cafe at 9 W. Main St., says 3rd Thursdays give regulars something to talk about and guests an excuse to stop in on a weeknight. They also draw visitors from out of town. Wilman opened his specialty coffee shop four years ago – "when the downtown wasn't it's best," he says – because he saw potential to fill a need for "high-quality experiences" without leaving town.
"If I can help the city of Milan grow into the city I think it can be and should be, I want to be a part of that," he says.
The Owl added craft beer and hard cider – mostly from Michigan – and wine to the menu about eight months ago and also recently started experimenting with craft cocktails on an event basis. The shop often celebrates 3rd Thursdays by introducing new coffee drinks, or a new smoothie with fresh fruit from the farmers market.
From pop-ups to storefronts
The series has also helped develop new downtown Milan businesses through its embrace of pop-up vendors. After spending time on the craft market circuit, Rachelle McDaniel was looking for a permanent space for her vintage home decor and gift shop last year when she started exhibiting at 3rd Thursdays.
Based on the success she experienced at 3rd Thursdays, McDaniel made the leap to opening her own downtown Milan storefront. Her Northern Chicks boutique has been at 32 E. Main St. since last November.
"I was doing really well and had been looking for a store at that time, and I always loved Milan," she says. "Milan is a true gem, and it's blossoming. So I was like, 'Why not?"
When 3rd Thursdays returns this week, McDaniel will host another pop-up vendor who makes leather goods in her own storefront.
"We're trying to really embrace the community, and embrace local talent," she says. "There are so many artists and so many great people, and we're just giving them a space to do that."
Although it's not a retail space on most days, CoMilan also hosts several pop-up retailers during 3rd Thursdays. Dave Baldwin founded the coworking space at 17 W. Main St. with his wife Trish two years ago, partly as a home for his web design company, but also to help "springboard" local startups who need office space to work and meet with clients.
"It's exciting to see all of the new people moving into Milan and new ideas and fresh perspectives, whether it be new events or new businesses," he says.
For June's 3rd Thursday, CoMilan will host Laura Fudge from Ann Arbor's Fudge Beauty, who will share product samples and beauty tips.
Baldwin's hope for CoMilan is to see his tenants outgrow his space and possibly fill the remaining storefronts downtown. Northern Chicks is one success story along these lines; comic book store Adventure, Ink at 1 W. Main St., Suite 2, is another. Baldwin sees 3rd Thursdays as another opportunity to let people try out downtown Milan as a home base with low stakes.
"It's one business at a time, it's one person at a time, and that's kind of how we look at things," he says.
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.