Downtown Hays was full of school spirit Thursday evening, as hundreds of students from Fort Hays State University, North Central Kansas Technical College and Hays Academy of Hair Design gathered for a back-to-school celebration.

The students met on the FHSU Quad and marched in a large procession down Eighth Street to Main, where a free meal and area businesses were waiting with open doors. The group was led by Victor E. Tiger, the FHSU cheerleaders, dance team and marching band.

The March2Main event was organized by Downtown Hays Development Corp. and Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau to celebrate the city’s three higher education institutes and introduce students to the nearby downtown district.

For some students, such as Aric Horn, Thursday’s event was the first time they ever had set foot in the historic downtown area, which offers a variety of retail, dining and entertainment venues.

“This is my first time walking Main Street,” said Horn, an FHSU freshman from Mankato. “This looked like a lot of fun, and it got me out of the dorm room for awhile.”

Gella’s Diner, 117 E. 11th, catered a free meal for the first 500 attendees, and many students plopped down on the curb of Main Street — which was blocked off for the event — to visit and enjoy dinner.

More than 30 downtown businesses were open late for the occasion, and some offered refreshments or coupons to visiting students.

“It’s an exciting event, because you get to see all of these fun faces,” said Anissa Pfeifer, owner of Blue Heron Boutique, 1013 Main. “And with them bringing everyone downtown, it’s nice because it gives them another option, so they even know there is a downtown area.”

FHSU sophomores Liz Leidig and Lexi Jeffery attended the same event last year, and since have frequented downtown businesses when they need a break from their studies.

“We came last year,” said Leidig, Phillipsburg. “We come downtown a lot to eat and get drinks and stuff. It’s a close, nice little walk from campus.”

Jeffery said she had been looking forward to March2Main as an opportunity to further explore the area.

“I like it to get away from homework and classes and to explore all the downtown,” Jeffery said of the event. “A lot of the shops, I still don’t know where they are or what they offer.”

Students were given “bingo cards,” each with a list of 10 participating businesses. If they visited each location on their list, they were eligible to enter a prize drawing. Four painted bricks also were hidden during the event and could be redeemed for cash prizes if found.

The March2Main celebration also provides a rare opportunity for students from all three schools to officially come together. Representatives from FHSU, NCK Tech and the Hays Academy are involved in the planning process.

“I think it’s really nice for them to have interaction with the different schools, like Fort Hays and NCK,” said Danielle Markley, an owner/instructor at Hays Academy of Hair Design. “It allows them to feel part of something bigger.”