Downtown Waukesha gets ready to party

GuitarTown celebration could attract 25,000

May 29, 2012

While in Los Angeles last month, Lynn Gaffey, a member of the Waukesha GuitarTown Steering Committee, visited the city's GuitarTown scene.

"Theirs is OK, but ours is truly better," said the downtown art gallery owner when comparing the two GuitarTown projects. "We're going to knock the socks off theirs.

"Our community can be very proud because our guitars are awesome."

Waukesha Business Improvement District Executive Director Meghan Sprager could not have agreed more.

"The guitars are fabulous and they are definitely a must see," Sprager said.

This weekend, after about five months of buildup, the community can see and experience Waukesha GuitarTown at a huge celebration. Many GuitarTown events, beginning with Thursday's private VIP GuitarTown Gala at the Rotunda in downtown Waukesha, will be going on throughout the next few days in downtown Waukesha.

The celebration includes the unveiling of the 10 Gibson Les Paul 10-foot fiberglass sculpture guitars and the playable showcase guitars at various locations in downtown Waukesha, events centering around Les Paul and appearances by local and national music celebrities.

"We've already planned that we won't be going to bed on Friday night," said Sprager, who will return early on Saturday morning for the Waukesha Farmers Market, which will also feature a GuitarTown event. "It's going to be a long and hectic weekend, but it will be worth every minute of it.

"And we hope the community comes out for it."

Rick Congdon, chairman of the steering committee who knew Les Paul, added: "It's going to be a heck of a weekend. We're going to rock and roll. It's going to be a party and we expect it to draw (tourists) for quite a while."

Concert series kicks off

The public events begin on Friday afternoon and lead up to the opening ceremony when the 10-foot guitars and playable guitars will be unveiled at 5:30 p.m. at the Five Points in downtown Waukesha before The Les Paul Trio, a group Les Paul played in for decades, will play at 6 p.m.

The music continues at the first of the Friday Night Live weekly summer concerts. With the backdrop of the 10-foot guitars, six stages at various downtown businesses will have live music for the 11th year.

Downtown business owner Kerry MacKay said with so many activities, it should be one of the most populated weekends of the year in downtown.

"This could be as big as the Christmas parade; that's my gut feeling, " MacKay said. "We've had more publicity coming for Friday Night Live than we've ever had before."

Sprager said the Christmas Parade usually gets anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people to the downtown and estimates that a typical Friday Night Live, which takes place every Friday until the end of September, usually brings about 4,000 people to downtown. But with the GuitarTown celebration coinciding with Friday Night Live, Sprager said she is at least expecting to double that number and has heard estimates of anywhere between 12,000 and 25,000.

"You don't get that in Waukesha every day," Congdon said.

Becoming a tourist site

Sprager is confident that more people will be visiting Waukesha because of the attention from out-of-state media and because Les Paul was an international hit. The state tourism department will also be on hand this weekend, as the 10-foot guitars will be part of a walking tour and 17 of the 20 playable guitars will be visible in downtown businesses (three of the playable guitars will be auctioned off at the gala).

"We're definitely expecting an increase in inventory for our businesses and I've spent a lot of time talking with restaurants about being prepared for an influx of people and the amount of volume that will be in downtown Waukesha," said Sprager, who added a brochure is being made to guide people around the city as they are taking part in the walking tour.

But Sprager quickly pointed out that she doesn't expect the crowds to disappear after Saturday.

"The impact beyond the weekend is significant," Sprager said.

Outside of the winter months when the 10-foot guitars will take shelter as a way to preserve them from the weather conditions, the large sculpture guitars will stay outside throughout the year and will be placed in the same locations for three years before the project expires.

After that, the guitars will go to the sponsors and Sprager said some of them could end up in the Waukesha County Museum or other indoor public locations.

Sprager said the collaboration of the GuitarTowncelebration and Friday Night Live works out perfectly with the downtown's goal of holding at least one big event a month. She's calling them downtown Waukesha's "Mega-Weekend."

"Downtown Waukesha is really the place to be Friday and Saturday," Sprager said.

Little city has big heart

With an increased downtown crowd, MacKay, the manager of The Steaming Cup, could not be happier.

"I think it will have an incredible effect," said MacKay, who has had a Friday Night Live stage outside his coffee shop for a number of years and will have live music onSaturday as well. "Every store better be open in downtown, because people are coming and I'm expecting a fantastic response.

"We're working real hard to help show that Waukesha has more passion than some of the bigger cities that have been honored as GuitarTowns."

With a population just under 70,000, Waukesha is by far the smallest city to be named a GuitarTown city by Gibson Corporation. Other cities to be named a GuitarTown are London, Nashville, Tenn., Cleveland, Austin, Texas, Orlando, Fla., Miami and Los Angeles.

To accommodate the crowds, MacKay said he will set up a stand on the curb where people can have grab-and-go sandwiches while listening to the music. Sprager said about five other businesses will be offering the same kind of service.

"This is just the first Friday Night Live of the season but this is just going to open the door to the community," MacKay said. "And that door won't shut for the rest of the summer. With (GuitarTown being on the same day), people from surrounding states will be here and when they see what kind of fun we're having in Waukesha, I'm pretty sure they'll be back."

Displaying guitar costumes

MacKay said some of his staff, dressed in large guitar-like costumes will be strolling downtown this weekend to add to the festivities.

"You're going to see a sea of people walking by 10-foot guitars and they'll see these characters in the crowd and if that doesn't bring a smile to your face I don't know what will," MacKay said. "It's about showing that Waukesha is the place to have fun. That's our goal in all of this … it's about making an event for the community."


What: Public opening of Waukesha GuitarTown celebration

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday during the season's first Friday Night Live

Where: Downtown's 5 Points

What's more: The Les Paul Trio, a group Les Paul played in for decades, will play at 6 p.m.


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