PROVIDENCE — PVDFest is moving from June to September, but that won’t be the only change to a signature cultural event in the capital city.
Among them: The festival will move from downtown to the area on both sides of the Providence River pedestrian bridge. South Water Street will close to vehicle traffic during the event, and on the Saturday night of the three-day event, the same streets that close for WaterFire will be closed, but the streets downtown that usually close for PVDFest won’t.
Also, open containers of alcohol won’t be allowed, and there will be no city-provided bar service. Block parties won’t be allowed anywhere in the city, according to Providence Mayor Brett Smiley’s administration, because of the surge of people they’re expecting. There were 115,000 attendees for last year’s three-day festival, the mayor’s office says.
The changes to the festival are part of what the Smiley administration describes as a shift from a party in the streets to an arts-focused event that can be sustained into the future.
“It’s about putting the focus on the arts,” said Joe Wilson Jr., the director of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, in an interview Thursday at City Hall. “The artists, the performing artists, the artisans, our food truck vendors — it’s about putting the focus where it should be.”
PVDFest was created in 2015, during the administration of former mayor Jorge Elorza. Under Elorza, the event took place during the second weekend of June — around the same time as several other major cultural events in the city.
This year, PVDFest is set to run from Sept. 8 to 10. According to transition documents the Elorza administration prepared as the Smiley administration took office, changing the date and the location of PVDFest was already being considered.
The first day — Friday, Sept. 8 — will feature a concert curated with the help of the other summer cultural festivals in the city. Saturday, Sept. 9 will be a full-blown PVDFest with arts vendors along South Water Street, food trucks, and all of the stages and performing areas activated; a Grammy Award-winning headliner (no spoilers) will lead into a WaterFire event. Sunday, Sept. 10, will be the “chill day,” with food and art vendors and people making art together from noon to 6 p.m.
The new location — centered on the Innovation District Park — will provide a backdrop for the event that highlights the best of the city and reaches into its historic connections to the water, Wilson said.
“It’s just the best spot in the city,” Wilson said.
Asked about the reaction from constituents and businesses, Wilson acknowledged that “new is difficult.” But the changes, he said, were rooted in conversations the city had throughout the community.
“We believe that all of our businesses will benefit from the work that we’ve done in making these small tweaks for this year’s festival,” Wilson said.
After The Boston Globe’s interview with Wilson, documents were posted on Reddit and Twitter previewing some of the changes. The reaction on social media was roundly negative.
Wilson, an artist in his own right, emphasized that he, too, cares deeply about PVDFest — he has the grand marshal sash from 2017 to prove it. The event has always taken up city staff time and mayoral fund-raising, even beyond the city funds that have gone to FirstWorks, the nonprofit that helps make PVDFest happen (in large part by paying vendors without having to go through municipal red tape). This year, the city will take some of the city funds already budgeted for PVDFest for what the city calls a comprehensive sanitation plan, the sort of measure that might not surprise anyone who heard Smiley campaign on a promise of getting back to basics.
When people think of PVDFest, they may think about adventuring around downtown streets thronged with people (instead of cars) while drinking a cocktail out of a sliced-open pineapple and checking out live music and arts vendors. This year’s PVDFest will be strictly BYOP — bring your own pineapple, with no alcohol in it.
“I’d rather people go to the Dark Lady and the Alley Cat to get a drink, to go to Plant City to get a drink, to go to Bayberry to get a drink and a bite to eat,” Wilson said. “It’s about making the festival something our businesses can benefit from.”
(The Guild beer garden that’s already permitted on the footprint will be there during PVDFest, but people won’t be able to leave that area with their beers.)
When asked about the perception that the new PVDFest might reflect a less fun-focused philosophy, Wilson pointed to Smiley’s efforts to develop a comprehensive nightlife strategy and build an economy that doesn’t just work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. as well.
“To me, that doesn’t signal a mayor who is trying to be the fun police,” Wilson said. “He’s actually trying to build and to create and invigorate our nightlife sector.”