A summer staple, Downtown ToNight going strong after 17 years in downtown Missoula

Close, But No Seger member Travis Yost plays an acoustic set for a crowd at Caras Park on July 6. Yost shared the spotlight with John Floridis Trio, which opened the evening. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current)

A cloud hides the intense summer sun, and the crowd at Caras Park gets a brief interlude from the heat. The last chords of a Bob Seger song float through the air before fading.

“If you have a request for a Seger song, write it on a piece of paper,” Travis Yost told the crowd. “Then put it in your pocket.”

It’s Close, But No Seger on stage at Downtown ToNight, a summer tradition in downtown Missoula.

Since 2000, sponsors, vendors and musicians have gathered to entertain Missoulians on summer nights – Thursday to be precise – from June to August. Downtown ToNight grew out of the popularity of Out to Lunch, which is now in its 32nd year hosting vendors and performers on summer Wednesday afternoons.

“Downtown ToNight is definitely for everyone,” said Kristen Sackett, who is now in her third season with the event. “We want everybody to be able to come and know they’re part of the community and they belong there. We wouldn’t want anybody to not be able to come because of economic circumstance.”

At the height of the summer, Sackett said 2,000 to 2,500 people may attend Downtown ToNight. This summer, there are typically 20 vendors and one performer each week.

Sponsors, vendors and performers begin setting up in Caras Park around 3 p.m. on summer Thursday afternoons in preparation for Downtown ToNight. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current)

Performers and vendors must apply before March to be considered for any MDA event. Once all the applications are in, Sackett said the staff meets to decide where the applicants might fit best. They consider variety of offerings, power requirements, size and other variables.

Interested participants contact Sackett’s office year-round to inquire about getting involved. She likes that the event has grown into a tradition for the community with wiggle room to rotate fresh faces into the schedule. Food in particular has grown in importance during recent years.

“We’re always looking for vendors that are unique and different,” Sackett said. “It’s fun to have different options every week. The local food vendors are an important piece for us.”

Vendors, performers and sponsors typically start setting up around 3 on Thursday afternoons, and Badlander catering manager Melissa Wagner said it doesn’t take long to get busy once the event starts at 5:30.

The Badlander has participated in Downtown ToNight for eight years, and Wagner said the event has helped generate additional catering events, as well as attract potential future staff.

Local Thai restaurant Sa Wad Dee also has participated in Downtown ToNight for 15 years and Out to Lunch for 20 years. Front-end manager and owner’s daughter Mahlinee Foy said she loves seeing all the different people in the community.

If she’s lucky, she sometimes sees them twice.

“They’ll come down here and eat and then they’ll come find us at the restaurant,” Foy said. “It helps to get the word out.”

Despite the busy, hot nights, Foy said it’s always worth it at the end of the night.

Each Downtown ToNight is also sponsored by local businesses or organizations. The MDA approaches returning sponsors first to offer them sponsorship opportunities. If they decline, new sponsors approach the MDA or are found through referrals. A sponsor may choose to share the event with two other spotlight sponsors, or it can be the sole, or executive, sponsor.

Last Thursday, the Missoula Independent was the executive sponsor for the event. Independent Marketing and Events Coordinator Ariel Laventure said the Indy has sponsored the same night for more than 10 summers in order to reveal and celebrate winners of their annual Best of Missoula awards.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to celebrate our community because we’re passionate about the people in Missoula and outside of Missoula,” Laventure said. “It’s a big deal for a lot of people in Missoula.”

Missoula resident Gordon Anderson has been attending Downtown ToNight for 13 years. Anderson enjoys the music and thinks the event is great for everyone, including families. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current)

Best in Missoula winners could be easily identified by their large “Winner” buttons and big smiles. Property Solutions owner Scott Smith won Best General Contractor, the business’ first win in his 14 years of ownership. Smith said he comes to Downtown ToNight every Thursday, but this Thursday was special. Friends and clients kept coming up to congratulate him and admire his framed certificate.

Close, But No Seger member Yost tied for Best of Missoula band with John Floridis Trio, which preceded Yost on stage. Yost said the live music component of Downtown ToNight is so important for communities and for musicians.

Missoula resident Gordon Anderson agreed. Anderson has attended both Downtown ToNight and Out to Lunch regularly since 2004. He said his favorite part of the event is the music, and the event gets better every year.

“Missoula does these things really well,” Anderson said. “They get great support from everybody.”

Last Thursday was the first visit of the season for Ben Campbell’s family, who sat in the grass near the gazebo. He said his two sons enjoyed running around the park, which was filled with families and individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

“That’s what we like about Missoula.” Campbell said. “It’s community driven.”

Downtown ToNight runs from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday nights from June to August in Caras Park. Out to Lunch is every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June to August, also in Caras Park.