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Akst: Enjoying ‘Tuesdays on the Town’

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

I’ll be brutally honest. As a journalist and journalism educator, I’m supposed to be up to speed about local happenings (not to mention area, state, national and international happenings … it’s a big job).

But between figuring final grades for the 2013 spring semester at Northern Illinois University and the weeklong conference I’m currently in at NIU, I’ve been in something of a news blackout the past few days.

So I had no clue about “Tuesdays on the Town,” which began for the season … um, Tuesday … in downtown Sycamore.

The idea, promoted by Discover Sycamore (part of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce) is simple. Early evenings on the second Tuesday of each month, May through September, something family friendly will be happening in downtown Sycamore. The intent is to get people out mingling and taking advantage of local shops and restaurants that are staying open late.

Appropriately, the city itself had the honor of being first host of this year’s season. This week’s event: “Touch A Truck.”

Touchable vehicles included a snowplow, firetruck (attendees could hose down a parking lot at no charge), ambulance, street sweeper, police SUVs and a couple of earth movers. Kids were able to sit in drivers’ seats, honk horns and test sirens. Hours later, I can still hear them in my head.

Veteran truck touchers reliably assure me that it’s quite rare to see a street sweeper, and indeed, I can’t remember ever seeing one at the handful of truck touchings I’ve been to.

The Sycamore High School Band played. I particularly liked “Louie Louie” and “Oye Como Va.”

The event was spectacularly understated, with very little promotion, very little splash and no media buzz I was aware of. To be blunt, it was small town.

And that’s the genius.

Because according to “Measuring the Impact of Special Events,” by Rachael D. Carter and Jeannie W. Zieren, “Many local communities rely heavily on festivals and special events to generate spending and increase the influx of new money into the local economy. It can be difficult for a Main Street program, a tourism bureau, or a chamber of commerce to justify the spending that is necessary to host these events. Policy makers and sponsors may have tough decisions to make in determining which events to support.”

So, the trick is to promote and grow low-budget and low-maintenance – but high interest – gatherings.

I have no hard data (and would challenge the Sycamore Chamber to be forthcoming with it), but I would estimate the event drew at least several hundred people, and many were patronizing local businesses.

So, I would call Tuesday’s Touch A Truck a hit.

Best of all, friendly, professional, approachable city staff made sure everybody had fun. It’s good to see police when there’s no trouble, firefighters when nothing’s burning, paramedics when nobody’s hurt.

I asked a snowplow driver something I’d been curious about: Do irate homeowners ever lash out at drivers when their driveways get plowed in?

Not that I would ever consider such outrageous behavior. This was research.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We’ve had people throw shovels at us, people standing in the middle of the street, like we would stop … .

“Of course, we would stop,” he was quick to add.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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