Downtown Sounds: After the party

Downtown Bellingham Partnership

1310 N. Commercial St.


(360) 527-8710

When last we left off with the hardworking crew from Downtown Bellingham Partnership, they were at the cusp of the first of the five weekly concerts that comprise Downtown Sounds, their perennially popular concert series that evokes literal dancing in the streets. Even though the nonprofit has been throwing this party for some 13 summers now, 2017 came with some factors that built in uncertainty that had not been felt since the series broke out of its alley home and took itself to the streets.

Well, one factor, really. Instead of closing down just their customary block of Bay Street, Downtown Bellingham Partnership opted to shut down another block—of Prospect Street—as well, essentially doubling the size of the Downtown Sounds venue.

They’d built it before, and people came. And then they rebuilt it to be bigger and better and even more folks showed up. Would a third expansion be the charm for Downtown Sounds?

That question was answered emphatically when this year’s series launched, on Wed., July 5, with a reconfigured footprint and expanded beer garden. Thousands of people showed up to dance to the Prime Time Band, quaff pints of local beer, eat snacks from the assembled food trucks and generally mix and mingle with all walks of community life. When Polecat played to mark the halfway point of this year’s Downtown Sounds, the wisdom of giving the concerts additional breathing—and dancing—room became abundantly clear as more people showed up than ever had before.

“The experiment was a HUGE success,” says Downtown Bellingham Partnership Event Director Lindsey Payne Johnstone. “The amount of positive feedback we received from attendees was overwhelming in the best way. With the expansion, we were able to increase the footprint of the family area as well as provide a more enjoyable atmosphere inside the beer and wine garden.”

By the time Downtown Sounds concluded on Aug. 2, Downtown Bellingham Partnership estimates that some 18,000 people attended this year’s concerts, and the nonprofit’s hardworking volunteers poured nearly 12,000 pints of beer and 675 glasses of wine.

But the numbers don’t tell the true success story of Downtown Sounds, which is not simply that it draws a lot of people, but that it draws people from all walks of life in Bellingham and beyond. Downtown Bellingham Partnership has put no small amount of effort into making their series truly family-friendly, accessible and inclusive, and the proof that those intentions have paid dividends can be seen in an audience that comprises literally anyone and everyone who can find their way downtown.

“We have families attend, elderly, young, conservative, liberal, etc.—it’s a great cross-section of our community,” Downtown Bellingham Communications Director Mason Luvera says. “Downtown is really a place for all, and this event truly represents that.”

Odds are, when most of us think of Downtown Sounds, our thoughts are probably something like, “Sweet! Free music!” and that’s about it. However, for Downtown Bellingham Partnership, the thought process runs deeper. When they first began this sonic odyssey, the goal was simply to increase public engagement with the downtown core in a way that was easy and fun. Once they’d checked that box, they worked to make certain their series was truly a welcoming experience for one and all, serving the dual purpose of showing off some of what the city has to offer and ensuring that people of all ages, types and backgrounds knew this public party was an all-inclusive affair. And fostering that sense of community remains a top priority for Downtown Sounds organizers.

“I love how Downtown Sounds brings the community together,” Payne-Johnstone says. “It truly warms my heart.”

But it takes more than a village to make Downtown Sounds flourish. It also takes sponsors who understand the bigger mission of the concerts. Downtown Bellingham has been lucky to have steadfast support from the likes of Bayou on Bay, the Spark Museum, Boundary Bay Brewery, and others for years, but when their title sponsor dropped out at the very last minute, they gained a new community partner for 2017: Sanitary Service Company, a locally owned and operated company that has invested in just about every community event and institution we all know and love.

“SSC is proud to support the Downtown Bellingham Partnership (DBP) and be the presenting sponsor for the Downtown Sounds summer concert series,” says Paul Razore, Sanitary Service Company owner. “The tireless work of DBP and the events they organize, like Downtown Sounds, are in line with our many years of supporting local organizations and events that help build community, get people outside and provide enjoyment, all while benefiting our community’s economic vitality. We look forward to continuing our support of Downtown Bellingham Partnership and their work in the years ahead.”

Along with SSC and other Downtown Sounds sponsors, Payne Johnstone says special credit must be given to those responsible for making the bands sound good under what can occasionally be not-so-good circumstances.

“We also want to give a huge shout out to our partner, Groove Merchant Northwest,” she says. “Eddie Hernandez and his crew have been a part of Downtown Sounds from the beginning and the series would not be where it is today without their talent, professionalism, hard work, vision and passion.”

Now that the 2017 series is over, the stage is packed away and the sponsors have been thanked, Downtown Bellingham should take a long, self-congratulatory break. Instead, they’re right back at it, staging the Commercial Street Night Market, which takes place on the third Friday of the month from May-September, and will happen Aug. 18 and Sept. 15 before sunsetting for a few months.

In the meantime, the organization that began with the simple idea of increasing public engagement in the downtown core finds itself in the rare position of having mostly succeeded in what they set out to do, and will now devote their creative energy to determining what’s next—and we get to have a say.

“The Downtown Bellingham Partnership will soon be seeking input from the community about what they want to see more of downtown as part of a comprehensive process to readdress our organization’s scope of work,” Payne Johnstone says. “Do you want to see more beautification projects like murals and landscaping improvements? Do you think downtown needs to organize to address issues and create positive outcomes? What about economic development programs? Promotions and events that get people in the streets and shopping at the small brick-and-mortar businesses that help make our neighborhood great?”

No matter what they take on next, if Downtown Sounds is any indication, we’re all guaranteed to have a good time.

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