"This is pathetic.” Judy Olinski grins when she recalls that comment, made by a restaurant owner at Williamsport’s inaugural First Friday event in 2001.
As one of the founders of the happening, Judy agrees that things were slow to start. But that humble beginning bears fruit to this day, as First Friday is now a tradition, bringing people to Williamsport’s eclectic downtown every month of the year (www.williamsportfirstfriday.org).
A native of Scranton, Judy and her neurologist-husband, Stuart, came to town for his job with the hospital. They planned to stay three years. That was more than thirty years ago.
“We and the town shared values,” she recalls. “We believe in being kind, moral, hard-working.The schools were good and the streets were safe, so we stayed.”
In the 1990s, downtown Williamsport was seeing the same troubled times as other northeast cities. Families had fled to the suburbs, taking retail businesses with them. Crime began to creep up. Buildings were languishing.
“I became concerned that Williamsport was losing its urban core, so I volunteered to do something,” Judy says. The “something” centered on the city’s prominence as an arts center, primarily for music, but also the visual arts.
“We stole First Friday from Philadelphia,” Judy laughs. “It was a way to get people to come downtown.”
Once folks started coming out to see artwork, hear musicians, and meet authors, the business community bought in as well, hosting events in their shops and restaurants.
“Otto’s bookstore would bring in writers. A craft store had demonstrations,” Judy remembers, “We meant it to be a summer event, but the cold weather came and people kept coming, so we moved it inside.”
Today, there are several off shoot committees from the First Friday group, and the arts community has a seat at the table when the city talks about planning. The Lycoming Arts Council serves as the umbrella organization to coordinate efforts.
Judy is still involved in the arts, including running Gallery 425 at her husband’s former medical office. “Three years ago, I said, ‘until we sell the office I’ll hang art,’ and here we sit,” she laughs.
Judy’s efforts to nurture a vibrant arts community have not gone unnoticed. In 2011, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette named her its very first “Person of the Year” in honor of all that has happened on Judy’s watch, including the painting of colorful murals downtown and the addition of more galleries.
As for the future of First Friday, Judy says the program is in good hands, both now and in years to come, thanks to younger volunteers coming forward. “And,” she affirms, “my generation has another ten good years in us.”