Winslow in White: Reviving Community Spirit

This summer, Downtown Winslow, the Main Street community on Bainbridge Island, Washington, finally began to emerge from the double whammy of the prolonged economic recession and a six-month major infrastructure project. During the construction, traffic on Winslow Way, the island's main street, was reduced to one lane and eventually closed completely, inspiring one reporter to dub the area "Little Beirut," and advise tourists to stay away until the fall.

Our downtown was facing some tough challenges. Winslow Way Reconstruction replaced sewer, water, and sidewalks from one end of town to the other. Virtually every sidewalk and storefront was affected. Construction started just as merchants were beginning to recover from more than two years of slow sales. A main street that had never been faced with vacancies now had more than a few empty storefronts, with rumors that more were on the way.

And that wasn't all. A potentially fatal blow had come just months earlier, as our 13-year nationally accredited Main Street program lost key funding from the City of Bainbridge Island and was forced to go "quiet" during 2011 without a full-time executive director in place. (Learn more about National Main Street accreditation and the benefits of National Main Street Network membership.)

As summer drew to a close and the main section of downtown reopened to traffic, we truly needed something to lift our spirits. We needed to bring our merchants, property owners, and the community back together to celebrate the hope and resiliency of our downtown. Winslow in White became that "something," a symbol of the hope and optimism that is Main Street. If the event was successful, it would signal the return of the downtown association and the re-emergence of our critically important Main Street program.

Winslow in White

Bainbridge Island Downtown Association and the Revitalization Partnership quickly planned Winslow in White with very little budget. We fashioned the event after the original Diner en Blanc, the well-known pop-up picnic that now draws more than 10,000 picknickers to an annual dinner in Paris. We invited people to wear white and join their neighbors for a bring-your-own-dinner downtown and encouraged restaurants to offer ready-to-go catered meals. Businesses advertised their take-out menus and special boxed suppers on our Facebook page, which generated a lot of customers.

Through Facebook and e-mail promotion, we put out the word first to merchants and downtown property owners about table reservations. Seventy tables for eight guests each could be reserved at one of two levels—$125 for a Premium-level table or $50 for a Classic-level table. We estimated that we would reserve 10 percent of the total seats for general admission and "day-of" guests.

Much to our surprise, tables were snapped up in twos and fours, and within five days, we had sold out. After adding extra tables to make sure we could accommodate additional guests, we eventually sold 45 tables at the Premium level (reserved tables with floral arrangements and special gifts) and another 61 at the Classic level (reserved tables without the perks). Ten tables were reserved for general admission and another six for guests who showed up without advance-purchase tickets.

Since it was a first-year event, we hoped to cover our costs but did not anticipate generating additional funds at the end of the day. Three $500 sponsors (Wells Fargo Private Banking; SVR Design, which did the town's streetscape design; and The Island Gateway, a new LEED Platinum commercial development) and the ticket sales covered rentals of 107 tables, 900 chairs, barricades, and day-of-labor crews, as well as the the cost of items for the premium tables.  

Sunday, September 11th, was selected for this year's Winslow in White mainly because we knew the weather in the Northwest can be fickle. Summer was so late in arriving, we knew we couldn't wait another week. The significance of the date being the 10th anniversary of 9/11 came up later; we felt that an event in celebration of community and the spritit of resiliency was entirely appropriate. We planned to make a toast to the community and to each other, believing that our toast would honor the significance of the date as well.

A Perfect Evening

Set up began at sun-up, with a full street closure and a crew setting up tables and chairs with uniform precision. The timing of everything from the floral arrangements to the small gift boxes of chocolates for the premium tables needed to be exact as we were experiencing an unusually warm September day, with 80+ degree weather. By 3:00 p.m., 107 tables covered with white tableclothes were sitting in the middle of main street. Soon, people began arriving to set up their dinner parties. They brought their own china, candlesticks, flowers, and three-course "slow" meals. There was definitely a sense of bounty as people brought lavish dishes of homemade food and shared them family style.

Promptly at 6:00 p.m., nearly 900 diners dressed in white showed up to picnic with friends, celebrate the community's resiliency, and toast our downtown's revitalization. For an event that came together in just over three weeks thanks to a talented volunteer team and the wonders of social media, Winslow in White was an amazing gathering. It brought downtown merchants, property owners, friends, and families together for a great celebration. Property owners cooked meals for their tenants using vegetables from their own gardens, people from age 28 to 92 celebrated birthdays, old friends visited long into the night, and people chatted and ate together in the truest spirit of community.

As the sun began to set on the warmest evening of the entire year, the dinner began with a beautiful a capella version of the national anthem sung by Victoria Robinson, Miss USO, who happened to be on the island working with a well-known opera coach and just stumbled upon us while we were setting up tables that afternoon. Next a beautiful toast was given one of Winslow's most respected and beloved community leaders, Larry Nakata, whose family owns the Town & Country Market. Sometime after 9:00 p.m., diners reluctantly began to pack up and leave, wandering happily away under a full, orange harvest moon. Crews moved in to take down tables and pack away chairs, and by 11:00 p.m., the street looked like nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.

The takeaway message: Anyone who doubted the power of Main Street or the resiliency, tenacity, and spirit of our downtown merchants and property owners walked away with a renewed certainty about the future of our community.

We are still pinching ourselves to see if it was all real... so much of the evening surpassed our expectations, and I know that it did much more than we ever could have hoped to rekindle a sense of community in our downtown.

Learn more about Winslow in White on our Facebook page.