Oakland First Fridays too expensive to operate, takes a pause, hurting small businesses

Oakland First Fridays is taking a hiatus from January through March 2024. Event organizers cite high operating costs keeping them from putting the event together. Now, they’re looking for new sources of funding.

Event organizers said it costs them about $45,000 each month to put on First Fridays.

Even though grant funding and sponsors help cover some of that cost, it’s not enough to sustain it. They need to raise between $20,000 and $25,000 more per month to carry it through the new year.

The free community event draws crowds between 15,000 and 30,000 people on Telegraph, between 22nd and 27th Streets, gathering artists, performers, and small businesses. The monthly festival, held every first Friday of the month, has been going on for nearly two decades.

Vendors who take advantage of the crowds said they could take a huge hit to business without the exposure.

"It’s really been an incubator for our business and other small businesses in Oakland," said Justin Ford, who said his small business "Oakland’s Own" got its start at First Fridays.

"In 2019, we were able to open up our own location on Fruitvale through the support of working with Oakland First Fridays," he said. 

Ford's apparel brand is entirely Oakland-specific. He said he grew up in Oakland and wants to see small businesses in Oakland survive. He said the income from First Fridays covers his rent, cost of products, and advertising. 

"As far as food vendors, just the cost of trying to get a brick and mortar location, a kitchen to do your business, you’re able to bring to come out with your food truck with your items and let Oakland taste your food," said Justin. 

First Fridays is run by the KONO Community Benefit District. Account Manager Venessa McGhee said security is a top priority, but it’s also the biggest expense. She said OPD officers attend, but they also hire a private security company with armed and unarmed guards.

"It’s no secret that First Fridays has suffered significant rate increases. our overhead has been increasing faster than we can adjust to," she said. 

"We have to pay for barricades to block off the streets. We have to pay for porta-potties," she said.

Organizers said the event used to have capacity for 95 vendors, but new bike lanes on Telegraph have reduced capacity and as a result, KONO lost thousands of dollars in revenue.

Neighboring businesses near Telegraph also benefit from the event, especially the Art District on 25th, which is also the origin of First Fridays, Art Murmur.

"It plays into the old trope that Oakland can’t have nice things," said Michael Pierce, who operated Forage Kitchen in Uptown Oakland. "Why can’t Oakland have nice things?"

"It’s definitely a loss of a shared sense of community in a bigger event that really represents the good parts of Oakland," Pierce said.

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He told KTVU his shop got broken into twice in the last 48 hours. Despite that, he said, "Through my 85 to 90 First Fridays I’ve helped throw in our spaces, I’ve never really had too many major issues with security so overall it’s a net positive."

Pierce said Forage Kitchen will continue to host events at their venue on the first Friday of the month in the new year, expecting to draw the same crowds.

Organizers want the event to stay free, so McGhee is hoping donations or a sponsor steps in to save First Fridays.

"If everyone gave one dollar, that would be a huge significant help," she said. "This event was founded by the community and it’s going to take the community to keep it going."

For information on how to donate, visit the Oakland First Fridays website.

The next two First Fridays will be on November 3rd and December 1st, weather permitting. After the hiatus, KONO hopes to start back up on April 5th.