In the summer of 1976, the Downtown Improvement Board of Barrie ran with a crazy idea. Why not close Dunlop Street for a couple of days and have a festival? At that time, the event didn’t even have a name and was simply referred to as a mall.
The experiment was a very popular one with both residents and business people in the area. One merchant described the event as “a howling success” while another mentioned that it was the busiest Friday night he had seen in five years.
Change doesn’t come easy for everyone. A shop owner located in the thick of the activity was less than impressed.
“We want no part of that.” he told the Barrie Examiner just afterwards and added that the mall was nothing more than “a beer rabble party.”
He finished by saying that the “dictatorial and communistic” actions by the organizers are likely to be the ruin of the downtown area. Hmm, I do believe he was just a little bit wrong there.
That initial two-day event was received well enough to encourage the Board to try it again the following year. In June 1977, the mall was expanded to four days which ran from Wednesday, June 1 until Saturday, June 4.
It rained a fair bit that second year yet people came. Taking this as a good omen, the Board dove into planning for 1978 in a big way and gave the little street party a name – Promenade Days. A summer tradition was born.
The original Promenade Days were essentially large sidewalk sales, featuring goods sold by downtown merchants, with a little fun thrown in. The beer garden was an instant hit in the days before patio season was even dreamed of. Add a midway, art and craft demonstrations, a street dance, petting zoo and a dunk tank and you have a winning recipe.
In 1978, the event was reduced to two days, both of them on the weekend, and moved to July where some nice summer weather could be expected.
That year, saw the additions of a road hockey tournament, skateboarding demonstrations, a gong show, and a wet t-shirt competition featuring Miss Nude Northland. The latter event reportedly attracted over 3,000 spectators.
The festival of 1978, which coincided with the 125th anniversary of Barrie’s founding, saw a large expansion of street closures. Barricades were set up the Toronto Street and Mulcaster Street ends of Dunlop Street. Parts of Clapperton, Bayfield and Maple were closed as was the whole area around Memorial Square.
The city’s anniversary theme was apparent everywhere during that third edition of Promenade Days. Merchants and their employees were encouraged to dress in “old tyme” fashions and many did just that.
When all was said and done, more than the hoped for 50,000 attendees had been realized and the Downtown Improvement Board reported that this had been their most financially successful promotion in their history.
Promenade Days had a long run. It was always eagerly anticipated each year. For a long time, Promenade Days and the other true sign of summer in Barrie, Kempenfest, were the only multi-day summer events of their kind in Barrie.
Then, along came a pandemic and shook everything up. Kempenfest will be returning after a two-year hiatus but Promenade Days has morphed into something else.
The Board, which is now known by the slightly altered moniker Downtown Barrie Business Improvement Area, BIA for short, has been running mini–Promenade Days throughout the warmer weather months for some time now.
Open Air Dunlop offers a new and more regular take on the old and much beloved Promenade Days. The sidewalk displays are ever changing too. Visitors can engage in art, music, food and theatre and participate in everything from yoga to local history.
No need for beer gardens when we have all those fantastic patios! Cheers to the Promenade Days we loved and to Open Air Dunlop.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.