Behind the Scenes at Downtown Summer Nights

Originally published in Yakima Magazine
By Molly Allen

Those of us who have spent some time in Yakima realize there is something special about the way our community comes together for a good cause — and Downtown Summer Nights is a perfect example of that camaraderie.

The musical event, put on every Thursday evening during summer for 10 weeks straight, is a heavy load to lift, but under the direction of the Downtown Association of Yakima (DAY), in collaboration with Chinook Entertainment and a handful of other key partners, the community manages to pull it off flawlessly. Vendor tents, the massive stage, the beer garden, and then the musicians spring up on North Front Street every Thursday night, as if by magic. But it takes a whole lot more than magic to make it all happen.

Downtown Summer Nights, now in its seventh year, was an event originally put on by the City of Yakima and its partners, until DAY took it over in 2017. Now, DAY, a non-profit organization and member of the Washington State Main Street program, is working hard to build a bigger and better event each year as part of its mission to attract people downtown.

Downtown Summer Nights kicks off June 13 this year and runs for 10 weeks (with the exception of July 4), ending on Aug. 22. But the work for this major event starts far before Yakima’s temperatures even hit 70 degrees. Initial planning for the event begins in November, as DAY secures its contract with Chinook Entertainment to manage the entertainment bookings, marketing and sponsorships. Planning speeds up in February and March, as DAY works to secure key elements such as portable restrooms and the truck for the beer garden, determines the beverages that will be served, books vendors and gets volunteers lined up.

“It’s pretty incredible that it has continued to develop the way that it has,” said Andrew Holt, director of DAY. “So many great partnerships have developed with a lot of dedicated hands involved. A lot of people have to come together to pull it off.”

Once summer hits, DAY is all-hands-on-deck on concert days. Front Street isn’t shut down until 1:30 p.m., meaning the team has only four hours to set up a full concert in the streets. “It’s definitely a fast and furious day for us,” said Holt. “But we’ve figured out great ways to be more efficient, especially under the direction of our operations manager John O’Rourke.” In addition to four DAY staff members, Holt and O’Rourke included, the event typically requires 15 volunteers each week, all working hard under strenuous conditions. “Especially on those days when its 95 degrees in the dead of summer, it’s pretty physical work,” Holt said.

Starting at 1:30 p.m., this power team builds the entire event, setting up fencing, pitching vendor tents and setting up the stage from Leo Roy’s Audio Visual that’s brought in every week. The gates open at 5:30 p.m., the music finishes at 9 p.m., and all event components must be packed up that night, making it a long day for the employees and volunteers.

The weekly all-ages event attracts multiple vendors, from community nonprofits to pizza restaurants to taco stands, and features a large beer garden with a variety of local brews. The beer garden is constructed in the North Town Coffeehouse parking lot every week, with the help of local sponsors, and Columbia Distributing provides the refrigerated truck that allows DAY volunteers to pour ice cold beer for the crowd. “We’re fortunate to have a partnership with Columbia, and we also work with Craft Beverage Yakima for the beer and wine selections. It’s definitely an all-around community effort,” said Holt, who estimates 2,500 to 3,000 people come downtown to enjoy the free event on the bigger nights.

Chinook Entertainment owner Cody Beebe, along with festival director Michelle VandenBrink and talent buyer/operations manager Dawn Gardner, work hard each year to bring a variety of great bands and singer/songwriters to the stage. Because of the connections they’ve built by bringing bands to the Pacific Northwest for Chinook Fest, Suncadia Resort’s concert series and other Valley events, Chinook Entertainment has an advantage in booking quality acts. Gardner lives part-time in Nashville, which gives Downtown Summer Nights an additional boost in access to the music scene. “We start by looking at national acts and try to figure out how we can link up and bring them to Yakima,” said Beebe. “Often the Thursday nights work really well because they’re looking to fill in a night on the way to Seattle.”

Each Thursday night features one opener and one main act, for a total of 20 bookings throughout the summer.

“We ultimately want to bring something everyone will enjoy,” Beebe said.

As he and his crew secure musicians, they look at other pieces of the puzzle, too. “We also look at artists we have had in the past, those that people loved, that are a good draw, and we sprinkle them in,” he said. “For example, Too Slim & the Taildraggers only comes through once a year, but we know they’re a favorite in the Valley, so we try to get them when we can.

Different genres of music come into play throughout the summer season from country to Latin to rock ‘n’ roll, each carefully hand-selected.

“We have to be very strategic to get the quality of musicians we get for the dollars we have,” Beebe said. “But we like to try new things. For example, last year we brought in some Latin bands and the response was great. This year there may be some hip-hop. We like to introduce people to something they’ve never seen or heard before.”

But no matter which band is taking the stage on Thursday night, there’s a lot of work to be done between the Downtown Association of Yakima, Chinook Entertainment and sponsors such as Solarity Credit Union and Yakima Chief Hops, before the musicians can sing their first notes.

“The community really likes and it and they really respond,” Holt said. “It’s a lot of effort, but it really is a fun time. We think it’s worth it.”