Summer fests are on the rise in Rochester — and few are more anticipated than Thursdays Downtown.

Kanika Couchene, director of events and strategic partnerships for the Rochester Downtown Alliance, said the organization had been planning to bring back Thursdays Downtown well before the state OK'd large outdoor gatherings.

And now that much of the state’s COVID-19 precautions are ending, this summer looks more like a return to normalcy than ever before.

“People are back downtown,” Couchene said. “They’re really ready to be back, which is exciting for us.”

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The weekly festival will, however, return to a downtown area that looks much different from 2019 — with expanded outdoor patios by restaurants around Peace Plaza, as well as ongoing construction.

In 2020, the RDA worked with the city to expand outdoor patio space for restaurants with severely limited outdoor capacity.

“That went over well, and we’d like to continue,” Couchene said.

RDA events director Kanika Couchene, May 26, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
RDA events director Kanika Couchene, May 26, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Katie Adelman, the RDA's content and communications director, said those outdoor spaces shouldn’t impact Thursdays Downtown.

That means moving the barricades up on Thursday mornings, undergoing Thursdays Downtown proceedings as normal, then replacing the barriers at the end of each event, Couchene added.

Ongoing construction

Destination Medical Center is “trying to open things as quickly as possible and trying not to keep areas fenced in, so spaces can be used,” Jamie Rothe, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency’s director of community engagement and experience, said in the May 20 DMC board meeting.

The goal as of May 20 was to fully open First Avenue by July 15, with Peace Plaza fully completed by Aug. 1.

“We are working closely with the downtown alliance and other organizations to make sure the plaza is usable for a very exciting milestone for our community — that is, Thursdays Downtown — and that will be open for them to use,” Rothe said.

Construction has moved to the north side of the project, looking south, but DMC had shifted to make room for Victoria’s Ristorante & Wine Bar’s outdoor patio, and had opened up fencing to allow restaurants on the “right-hand side” access to their outdoor seating, as well.

There is one thing that could delay the opening of Peace Plaza: a problem with an interactive lighting system on the east side.

The increased cost of supplying and engineering the hanging lights, designed by Rafeal Lazno-Hemmer, have gone beyond the original budget, Rothe said. DMC is discussing modifications to the design or sourcing moving forward.

The situation is fluid, Adelman said, but at present, the RDA believes that the south end of First Avenue will be open up to Peace Plaza by July 8, when Thursdays Downtown is set to kick off for the summer.

“Beyond that point on First Avenue, we hope to open more vendor spaces as construction allows,” she said. She estimated that would be possible around July 22, two weeks into Thursdays Downtown.

The exact number of food and vendor spaces is yet to be determined, as applications closed on Friday, May 28. Similarly, the music lineup is being finalized by entertainment contractor Big Bang Companies — but Adelman said construction should not affect the outdoor stages.

A few aspects of Thursdays Downtown still take COVID-19 into account — there will be more space between vendors, and those sellers have been asked to clean between customers, Couchene said. There will be hand-sanitizing stations throughout the street.

But for the most part, it will be a relatively “normal” Thursdays Downtown. And that goes for masking up outside.

“As far as masking goes, there is no requirement anymore,” Couchene said. “We are leaving it up to people, as our vendors. I will say we are encouraging it.”

If you go

What: Thursdays Downtown

When: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every Thursday from July 8 through Sept. 9 (dates subject to change based on COVID-19)

Where: First Avenue Southwest and Northwest, Third Street Southwest, and Peace Plaza

Online: www.downtownrochestermn.com/events/thursdaysdowntown

Randy Peterson contributed to this report.