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Mayor Vows to Protect First Fridays

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Irony was not lost on Christina Newton as she charted a proposed itinerary for Mayor Dwight Jones' Sept. 4 tour of First Fridays Artwalk: Laws would be broken.

Among the various Broad Street galleries that Jones and his entourage would visit, at least two offered a paradox: The mere presence of Newton, Jones and his administrative staff would exceed the maximum occupancy limit dictated by city building code requirements.

Newton, director of Curated Culture, which sponsors the event, has faced for months the looming specter of city building and fire inspectors whose intentions were unclear as they've made multiple visits to First Fridays' galleries.

The monthly walk typically draws crowds of thousands, and a fire marshal recently drew attention to a number of galleries that exceed their occupancy limits then. The official indicated that he'd passed the information along to a building inspector.

That move finally led to a direct meeting Sept. 1 between Newton and Mayor Jones' administration. Newton finally got the answers she's been looking for, she says.

“The organic nature of First Fridays' growth has brought these challenges,” Newton says, but “we had a very positive meeting and the city is going to assist our organization and the downtown businesses in facilitating special-use permits for the downtown events.”

In a nutshell, Jones' team sensed an unfortunate face-off between one of the city's most positive cultural events and modern code and fire safety applied to a half-dozen blocks of 60- to 100-year-old buildings.

Last week, Jones reiterated his pledge to support the event. At the meeting — also attended by the mayor's chief of staff, Suzette Denslow, Fire Chief Robert Creasy and acting Chief Building Commissioner Ray Abassi — the new chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, laid out the bones of a three-tiered approach to handling the issue.

The first step was Jones' appearance at last week's First Fridays, a clear sign that the city has no plans to endanger the event with overeager code enforcement. The next step, Jones spokeswoman Tammy Hawley says, will be issuing special permits to allow certain businesses to exceed occupancy limits during First Fridays.

“They're being very accommodating,” Newton says, pleased with the plan, though a bit worried about the $200 charge for businesses seeking the special-occupancy permit. “I don't know how we're going to raise the funds to do this.”

Lastly, Hawley says Jones is considering a plan to create a special arts district along the corridor that might allow for exemptions to other code restrictions, and might also include special tax incentives for businesses.

The city is also working to ensure the efforts aren't construed as circumventing safety, Hawley says.

“We're not foregoing our safety concerns, but we're not interrupting the flow of this very popular downtown event,” she says, noting that even with the special-use occupancy certificates, business owners must submit to inspections — and there still will be limits to how many people can occupy a building at any one time.

But what should remain clear, Hawley says, is “we're going to be working together to make the event successful.”

Correction: In the print edition Style misidentified Mayor Dwight Jones' chief of staff, Suzette Denslow. We regret the error.

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