Washington’s many street festivals a boon for downtown businesses

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Sheep race down South Main Street during last year’s Running of the Wools event, which will be held again May 4.

There will be flocks of sheep racing through Washington next weekend for the Running of the Wools, but it’s the thousands of visitors who will be flocking to the downtown business district that has local store owners most excited.

One of them is Anastasia Barr-Whiteman, who looked outside her Pretzels Plus with an Amish Touch shop at its brand new location on South Main Street and marveled at the thought of sheep running by her front door next Saturday afternoon.

“Especially with the finish line right there,” Barr-Whiteman said, pointing to what will be the makeshift racetrack right on the main drag through the city.

More importantly, though, she considered what it would mean for the growth of her business with the opportunity to welcome crowds of visitors into her store during the street festival.

“This will be our first event,” Barr-Whiteman said of the store’s recent move from Washington Crown Center mall into the city. “I think it’s going to be good exposure being in downtown Washington.”

That’s exactly what Shana Brown was hoping for as more and more events are being brought onto Main Street to give the city and its businesses exposure. Brown, who serves as director of the Washington Business District Authority, has tried to offer additional attractions such as “Breakfast Crawls” to kick-start events in order to give local businesses a much-needed boost.

“We have this plan to piggyback off of events to make them even bigger,” Brown said. “If we’re getting people downtown to see how the businesses work … we really need to show how successful they are.”

When she started her role, which was formerly known as the Main Street Manager, Brown said she had eight or nine businesses participating in a “Breakfast Crawl” in 2021. That has now expanded to nearly 20 places that will be open from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 4, before the sheep races to give visitors a chance to walk around the town and eat light snacks while they shop.

“It’s really a testament to our downtown community and how the businesses are willing to participate and jump right in,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, it all goes back to what would be successful for our downtown businesses.”

The first Running of the Wools last year was a resounding success, so much so that the event is expanding to other weekend activities, including more than a dozen local churches participating in a community blessing service Sunday, May 5, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Main Street Pavilion. From 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday night at the pavilion, there will be the “Fair Comes To Town” event as part of the monthly First Fridays events.

As the new leader of the city, Mayor Jojo Burgess praised the work of Brown and the WBDA, along with countless volunteers who make big events like Running of the Wools possible.

“Watching how hard Ms. Shana Brown works with the downtown business district, she works tirelessly. She really makes the city look good,” Burgess said. “Everyone is involved. It’s a fun event and it’s easy for people to gravitate toward.”

Burgess said the family atmosphere with Running of the Wools will prompt him to bring his 4-year-old granddaughter down to enjoy the daylong festivities. He also hopes such events can be catalysts to bringing the city’s residents and businesses together to work on a common cause of bettering the community.

“That ‘Unity in the Community’ (theme), these events do help with that,” Burgess said. “It’s also about all the neighborhoods coming together and building it into a better city of one. … We all work that together, not individually.”

And there are many other events – put on nearly every month by different local organizations – that offer something for everyone.

Some of them include Washington Goes Irish, the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, First Friday Car Show, Washington PA PRIDE, Rally on Main and the Italian Festival, among many others. This year’s Christmas parade is being moved from its normal slot on Friday night to Saturday, Nov. 30, so it can be combined with Small Business Saturday, the Winter Holiday Market and Light-Up Night events.

All of these events help small businesses like April Ryan’s, who owns Art by April Ryan and Thistledown Boutique on South Main near the pavilion. She is preparing to offer tea and possibly scones or cookies during the “Breakfast Crawl,” which she said will help to drive many people into her store.

“I think the sheep thing has an opportunity to be even bigger than the Whiskey (Rebellion) Festival,” Ryan said. “They’re saying it’s even bigger this year.”

But Ryan is also looking for ways to bring people into the business district other times of the year rather than just when big events are happening downtown. She’s hopeful the WBDA and city leaders can stimulate business opportunities and push more foot traffic into town to give local shops a boost.

“Oh, it helps a lot. All the events help,” Ryan said. “I just wish it was more busy (during the week). The events bring a lot of people in (but) we need to do something to get people in every day.”

And that’s Brown’s job to continue to get more people shopping downtown while attracting more businesses to move in. Brown pointed to the ribbon-cuttings at four new businesses in the city over the past month, along with several others that have moved into town over the past year.

“I think it is absolutely essential,” Brown said of growth. “My position is to help their businesses and get new businesses.

While Brown is meticulous in her planning of events and trying to attract new businesses to Washington, there are some things out of her control, especially when it comes to Running of the Wools.

“I’m planning every detail, but you can’t plan for sheep. If they want to jump over the fence and run down the street, they’re going to do it,” Brown said with a laugh. “It freaks me out.”

The Main Street Pavilion opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 4, for events leading up to the Running of the Wools, with the heat races beginning at 1 p.m. The championship race will be held at 3. For more information on the event schedule, go to www.runningofthewools.com.

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