Folk singer

Narissa Bond practices her song “The Road to Berea” which she performed during Berea’s First Friday event last Friday evening. Bond’s song was inspired by her great grandfather’s journey to Berea College to pursue his education after being freed from slavery. 

After a summer of uncertainty, one of Berea's popular concert series is starting the new year off with better rhythm. It's all thanks to a grant that will keep the music playing for years to come.

On Thursday, the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation named Berea as one of the 15 small-to-mid-sized towns across the nation to win a Levitt AMP Grant Award.

The grant of $25,000 is funded through the private family foundation created in 1963 to support the arts, culture and education.

Currently, the foundation is focusing on two different funding areas, 10 large permanent Levitt venues in large cities, which offer 50 weeks of programming a year, and a grant program that caters to towns on the small to medium scale.

Business woman Ali Blair and co-creator of First Friday, a popular community block party, said news that Berea received the grant was music to her ears.

"We are so very excited, it's been a long journey and we are so grateful to be included in the list of recipients for the grant," Blair said.

According to Blair, the news came as the future of the First Friday events were starting to become questionable.

Funding for the event was limited when the Berea Tourism Department voted to adopt a competitive grant process for programs for the 2016 fiscal year, which forced Blair and other organizers to figure out how to fill the gaps.

With decreased funding from tourism, Blair said organizers formed partnerships with area businesses to keep the festival going this summer.

Blair said when sponsorships fell short, she and others put up their own money to keep the festival alive.

"My partner and I both worked for free. We felt very strongly that this was a thing that was needed for the Berea community. We didn't want it to be taken from the town due to lack of funding, so we continued to try and keep it alive," Blair said.

The businesswoman said she was energized by the response the event had this summer as June offered one of the biggest crowds the event has ever seen.

"The community really rallied around the event and many businesses stepped up to keep it going," Blair said.

However, after First Friday concluded its events in the beginning of fall, it became obvious that alternative funding was needed if the event was to survive another year.

Blair said she was aware of the Levitt Amp Music Series grant and researched it in the past, but unfortunately, missed the deadline.

As September closed, Blair said organizers became focused on applying for the grant this time around.

"We worked hard on our proposal and partnered with some great people who offered valuable assistance," she explained.

Blair said she worked closely with Gwen Childs and Aimee Russillo of the Berea Arts Council, who served as the lead applicant, to get the grant packaged together.

With the help of the $25,000 matching grant, Blair said First Friday will be transformed in the Levitt AMP Music Series which will run for 10 weeks in the summer.

"It will be like First Friday, every Friday, from now on," Blair said with a laugh. "It will be scaled back some because it is a longer series but we also plan to roll the concert series Berea Parks and Recreation sponsors each August into it."

Blair will be serving as an independent contractor and producer, and said the series would be receiving marketing/advertising support, as well as space and from the Berea Tourism Commission.

The Berea College Entrepreneurship for the Public Good program, and its professor Dr. Peter Hackbert, is involved with collecting data and measuring the cultural and economic impact of the event. Blair noted Hackbert has committed to bringing in the director of tourism and economic development from Abingdon, Va., to serve as a consultant for the series to get the largest economic benefit.

The project has MACED and Mountain Tech Media as confirmed sponsors, according to Blair.

Blair said the two-month wait was brutal, but claimed the support from the community during the open voting process in November, thrust Berea into a top contender place for the grant.

"The voting is what got us into the top 25 spot," Blair said. "It was really important to display that the community supported your event and wanted to see it grow. Without that show of support, I don't know if we would have gotten the grant. It shows how Bereans can rally, and how First Friday had a great network and a lot of engagement."

According to a press release, Sharon Yazowski, executive director of the Levitt Foundation, said Berea was a top candidate because of the area and sense of community.

"We are thrilled to announce the 2017 Levitt AMP Grant Awards winners. Each made a compelling case for how the Levitt AMP Music Series will activate a public space and strengthen the social and economic fibers of their communities," Yazowski said in the release. "The Old Town Artisan Village is an ideal place for the Levitt AMP Berea Music Series, building community through music while contributing to the revitalization of this historic space."

Blair said she is already working on scheduling meetings in the new year to discuss details of the new music series, but noted the series will likely take place July 1 through Sept. 8.

Blair is excited about the future of the music series, calling it a "win-win-win" for everybody.

As First Friday will live on for another year, albeit in a new form, she believes the sprit of the festival is what brought people together to defend it.

"I think the community rallied behind this effort because of the diverse and authentic experience First Friday Berea provides," Blair said. "Often, the energy feels like you are at a family reunion. The Levitt AMP Berea Music Series will provide accessible/inclusive space for building community thereby improving the quality of the dialogue around polarizing community topic." Blair said.

Reach Ricki Barker at 624-6611; follow her on Twitter @RickiBReports.

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