Lighting up the Neighborhood: Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights; the Beginning

Tomorrow Belhaven will illuminate the city with the 14th “Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights”. In this interview from 2014, Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay, former executive director of the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation (GBNH), looked back on a decade of commitment and celebration.

“Camp Best, who was director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation at the time, suggested that the GBNH should have a neighborhood festival in Belhaven. We’d been working hard on Fortification Street, and we wanted to do something fun and visible to bring people to the area. Camp and I were having coffee at Cups, and he said that we needed to do a street festival. I agreed; we already had the Belhaven Market going on, which was a Saturday event, but it was clear that we needed to take the next step.”

“There were several occasions that Virgi and I met for coffee at Cups in the early days of Fondren Renaissance Foundation and the Greater Belhaven Foundation,” Camp said. “We were fellow urban warriors in the trenches together back then, supporting each other in whatever way we could. The Fondren Renaissance Foundation had experienced some early successes with our Arts, Eats and Beats, Fondren Unwrapped, Symphony at Sunset and ARTMix (the early precursor to Fondren After Five). All of these events had one purposeful thing in common: get people outdoors in your neighborhood to show the world that it is safe to have fun there. Make it free, so everybody can come, and, use local music and art as the draw.”

Camp said that when he suggested to Virgi that she consider doing the same thing in Belhaven, she worried that they didn’t really have any restaurants or galleries for people to come to back then. “I said it didn’t matter. Make it up; make it look like you do, put the music and artists in the street and people will come. And they did.”

“So in a couple of weeks, I really began thinking about where it could be and when,” Virgi said, “And I began research on a good time to have a festival in Jackson when we wouldn’t have a lot of competition. I quickly found out that every month when the weather could be expected to be great was just full of events. But about that time, Chuck and I went to New Orleans in August, and just happened upon White Linen Night, one of the first ones they held. At that point, it was still a very quiet little event run by the residents on Julia Street. I looked around at this lovely, wonderful neighborhood event, and I thought that if New Orleans can have an outdoors event in August, Jackson, Mississippi can, too.”

Virgi said another reason the Belhaven foundation chose August was because they knew that if they were doing an event in April or October that the competition for sponsorships would be very tough, so scheduling an event in August helped guarantee that the sponsors would be more generous. “And yes, everyone thought we were nuts, but we decided to give it a go. We worked with the theory that it would be the last party of the summer, so we’ve always held Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights the weekend before school starts, the weekend before football season starts.”

Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon said, “It’s exciting that this is the tenth anniversary of Bright Lights, which is an amazing gift that Belhaven gives not only to our neighborhood, but the city itself. We all look forward to it. When we first started on this project, we thought, ‘Who on earth is going to come to an event in the middle of August?’ Well, they all came, they continue to come, and when you look at the diversity of the crowd at Bright Lights, you’ll find that it’s representative of Jackson. I’m so proud of Virgi and her group; they’ve done an incredible job putting this on year after year, and it has become one of the truly outstanding events in our city.”

“The very first year, 2005, Katie Hester and Cheryl Grubbs were the first co-chairmen of the event,” Virgie said. “We were going to open the gates at 5:30, still figuring things out, not sure at all how it would go. We looked up at 5:15, and there a good 500-600 people walking down to Carlisle Street. We had over 1500 people to come that first year. The Belhaven Improvement Association (BIA) volunteered to cook hot dogs and hamburgers in McDade’s parking lot. It was probably the hottest year we’ve ever had, with temperatures hovering around 100 at five in the afternoon. We had some food vendors, and BIA bought every hot dog in McDade’s, but we still ran out of food, we ran out of drinks, we ran out of everything, but as far as we were concerned, that was the most wonderful problem to have.”

Virgi remembers many near misses. “That July, Winn-Dixie had pulled out of the old Jitney 14 space, which was the second time in a short period that the neighborhood almost lost its grocery store. But just four days before the first Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights, GBNH could finally announce that McDade’s was going into the space. “There was a time when we thought that we were having our first festival and our one big anchor in the neighborhood would be lost. It was touch and go, but a week before Bright Lights, Greg McDade moved in. So instead of there being a big, dark, padlocked building at the festival site, we had a vibrant neighborhood grocery with all the energy associated with it.”

“Nobody knew what to expect,” Virgi remembers. “McDade’s ran out of change, everybody ran out of water. Then nine days later came Katrina, and retrospect it’s very emotional when you think about what a wonderful time we all had together that Saturday night, when we came together as a community without any realization that within a very short time we would pull together again in a totally different way. We had a wonderful grounding in the first event; and we came to know that we’re here, we’re together, and looking back it’s a powerful memory.”

“Belhaven has a lot of assets when it comes to putting on a festival of this type,” Virgi said. “For starters, we have a beautiful park we redid and renovated that’s like our ‘town center’. For another thing, we have very willing and cooperative neighbors. Every time a house on Carlisle or Kenwood (the streets where the festival takes place) goes on the market, we get a little worried because we know that the footprint of this festival greatly depends on the participation of the neighbors. And that’s what we’ve got to have, that’s what anyone’s got to have when they’re putting on an event like this, you must have great partners.”

Virgi says that the Foundation stays very true to their original intent, which is promoting all things relating to Greater Belhaven. “I think sometimes festivals get bigger and get growing and losing their originality: they bring in big groups, big bands, national entertainers, import big sponsorships for support. We have really steered clear of that. We could have done it, and a lot of people have told us we should do it, but we have stayed true to our intent of being indigenous. Starting in January, we get almost a million calls from people who are selling or reselling items, but you have to be connected to Belhaven in some way, and we only allow producers, meaning you can’t be a resale vendor. For instance, if you are reselling jewelry that you didn’t make, we will not let you come.”

“Another thing we’re very committed to is keeping the costs low,” Virgi said. “We want this to be a wonderful event for everyone. We have fabulous sponsorships; businesses really reach out and support us, so we can keep the costs low for families. It’s not designed to be a huge fund-raiser for the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation, but rather an event to promote Greater Belhaven and the City of Jackson.”

Virgi said that her best advice for someone starting a neighborhood festival would be to build a good team. “You can’t do it without a strong team. We’re very fortunate to have Betty Smithson, our programs director, who has been here for six years, and we have Carter Hood, our events coordinator, for the festival this year. We also rely heavily on our volunteers; we have about 100 every year.”

“Oh, and this is another piece of advice: When you name a festival, be sure you know what you’re doing,” Virgi said. “Because when you call something ‘Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights’, you have to have electricity; it was a total shock to us the first year when we realized, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have power!’ The first year, we spent the night before pushing extension cords through mail slots. For three years, we ran it on power from everybody’s house. We now have three temporary power poles, but we still run the event off power cords, and we have literally miles of them.”

“The word is out that Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights is a great festival.  Every year, when we think that it can’t get any better, it does.”