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Have a date this Friday night but no place to go? We’ve got you covered.

Need some wine and time away from the kids? Maybe a beer with the guys at Linksters Tap Room or Swan Brewing? Or maybe you and your friends have been looking for an excuse to test your skills at Escapology Escape Room?

No matter who your “date” is, head to downtown Lakeland this Friday night for the first “Date Night.” From 5 to 8 p.m. you can shop in stores that usually close at 6 p.m., enjoy some free sangria samples, listen to Micah Shane on the shores of Lake Wire, and much more.

“It’s another excuse for people to come downtown. Retail stores typically close by 6. In order to get them all to stay open, we have to have a hook, a reason,” says Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, a special taxing district that advocates for businesses in the downtown area.

It’s an event that developed after the LDDA held several “Girls Night Out” evenings during the last two years, Townsend says. “People loved it, but we don’t want to make the guys feel like they are not wanted, so we decided to brand a couple’s activity so people could stay out late and have a Date Night for couples… We just didn’t want to brand it as women only.”

The LDDA keeps in touch with the merchants downtown and plans activities with them. They had multiple meetings to come up with the theme and possible dates, Townsend says. Once those details were complete, the fun began when store owners decided what perks to offer. The LDDA markets the fun. “They agree to stay open and we do the rest.”

Chris Kittelberger, owner of Magnolia Popcorn Co. and Sweet Shoppe on Kentucky Avenue, will be offering patrons popcorn samples and summer sangria — along with 10 percent off  a purchase of $15 or more. She’s doing it to support downtown, she says. “We want people to know we are here, we are open for business, we’re welcoming, and we’re fun!”

She’ll likely create two new flavors for the event, including Latte Biscotti. “We’re small-business owners. Most of us are women,” she says of the downtown merchants. “So we want it to be fun.”

Neither the popcorn shop she’s owned for 18 months nor nearby stores like Lloyds of Lakeland and Jesse Carl Vinyl are oriented just to women, but even when women come with their husbands, the men generally sit on a bench outside, she says. “It’s kind of awkward for them. But we want men down here. It’s great (the LDDA is) doing this to include them.”

Nineteen merchants are participating, rain or sunshine. Townsend says she wishes every shop owner would, but understands that “doesn’t make sense for everyone.”

“You’ve got to have enough (stores) participating for people to feel it’s worth their time to come down,” Townsend says. “Hopefully, if this one goes well, then maybe they can talk with their neighbors who didn’t stay open and convince them to do it next time.”

The LDDA has scheduled Girls Night Out for Sept. 21 and the next Date Night right before Valentine’s Day, on Feb. 8.

Now, about Friday’s Date Night. We really want to know more about the “slap-your-date-silly” cream cheese bars that Traditions Unlimited is giving away, but the shop’s voice mailbox was full, so you will just have to explore and find out for yourselves. And hopefully not get slapped too hard.

Check out all the details here

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