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Festivals haul in $700 million for Michigan

They celebrate fruit, cheese, beer, wine, music, the arts, holidays, seasons, cultures, industries, hobbies, geography, history and ... well, pretty much all things Michigan.

They go by all sorts of names -- fairs, festivals, events -- but the roughly 4,000-5,000 such gatherings annually share an important attribute: the generation of millions of dollars for the Michigan economy.

While applauding the dollars and cents, some festival organizers also point to the events' more ephemeral impacts: community pride, cooperative spirit, volunteer opportunities and cultural awareness.

“They are celebrations with community behind them,” said Sue Bila, executive director of the Chesaning-based Michigan Festival and Event Association.

In 2011, about 35 million people attended Michigan festivals, according to the MFEA. Using what Bila calls a “very conservative” multiplier of $20 spent per person, that’s $700 million in festival-generated money -- much of which stays in Michigan. (For one point of comparison, the mining industry in Michigan in 2010 generated just over $1 billion in gross domestic product.)

And that $700 million figure could be low. The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City thinks each visitor is dropping $350-400 into the local economy, when counting travel, lodging, gas, parking, shopping, food and entertainment, Bila said.

The Cherry Festival calculation is based in part on the estimate that 42 percent of visitors are from outside the five-county Traverse area and, therefore, are more likely to have greater spending on lodging, food and the like.

The basic festival formula is simple enough. Some food, some music, a theme. Often there is an artistic component, with crafts or more upscale work for sale, or a parade, demonstration or performance.

Some are privately produced, with the name “owned” by a private company. Others are run by nonprofits specifically set up for the festival. Still others are run by a municipality or a downtown development authority.

Some events market themselves to local audiences, but others are reaching an international clientele.

“We see people coming from foreign countries and other states,” says Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, which is in its 15th year of festivals. Attendance has grown from fewer than 1,000 at the single festival the guild first held to nearly 20,000 at the four it will host this year, he said.

“When our guild formed, the main focus was to promote everybody’s business, and we thought the best way was through a festival,” Graham explained. “To try and get as many people exposed to as many of our members as we can, that’s the best format.”

Michigan beer festivals charge a hefty entrance fee -- up to about $40 a ticket, but other Michigan events are free. “That’s attractive in the tougher times,” Bila says. “People are looking for places to go and spend time with their families.”

History of fun in Michigan

Michigan’s festival industry can trace itself back to the Calhoun County Fair, first held in 1839, Bila said. Over the subsequent 170 years, festivals have grown to embrace a variety of themes.

Agricultural-based events abound, with Michigan communities celebrating: asparagus (Shelby, June 8-10); beans (Fairgrove, Aug. 31-Sept. 3); strawberries (Belleville, June 15-17; Coldwater, June 16); baby food (Fremont, July 18-21); apples (Fenton, Sept. 13-16, Coldwater, Sept. 15, Niles, Sept. 27-30); mushrooms (Mesick, May 11-13, Boyne City, May 17-20, Crystal Falls, Aug. 3-5) and pumpkins (Romulus, Sept. 14-16, Caro, Oct. 3-7, Zeeland, Oct. 4-6).

Hobbies are another popular theme, from fishing derbies and sailing regattas (Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Festival draws 350,000 to Lake Michigan's shore) to snowmobile rallies and golf outings.

Then there are your ethnic events -- Irish, Scottish, African, Arab, German and Polish.

Some themes are more eclectic.East Lansing plans a Llama and Alpaca Showcase in September. Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival draws an international crowd of hipsters to Hart Plaza on the city’s riverfront.

History can draw a crowd, too. Marshall’s Turkeyville is hosting its third Civil War festival this summer. The event started when a few re-enactors stopped by the restaurant and Patti Cornwell, Turkeyville’s director of marketing and amateur Civil War buff, approached them about a joint endeavor.

The result is the re-enactment-storytelling-dance festival that is expected to draw 5,000 people to the mid-Michigan community. “It’s going to help create traffic and it brings people out here,” she said. “Economically, it’s huge for the area.”

Humble beginnings are behind Battle Creek’s Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival, too. It grew from three balloon hobbyists getting together, said Barb Haluszka, executive director. This year’s event has a $525,000 budget and expects 200,000 people during its weekend run.

Still, Michigan's lost economic decade claimed casualties: Detroit’s Festival of the Arts and Comerica Tastefest are no more, for example. Other festivals, such as Muskegon’s Summerfest, have had to re-invent hemselves.

But that’s the business, organizers say. You have to adapt to what people want and what sponsors will support.

“I think different events serve different economic purposes,” said Jonathan Witz, owner of Jonathan Witz & Associates, which runs Royal Oak’s Arts, Beats & Eats and Detroit’s WinterBlast. Some, for example, may be a local farmers market that expands to include music. Others are major entertainment destinations.

A solid festival isn't built on public interest alone. For example, Arts, Beats & Eats was held in downtown Pontiac until three years ago when two things happened: Chrysler Corp., in the midst of a government bailout and corporate reinvention, pulled its sponsorship. That took $350,000 of the festival's $1.2 million budget.

Then the city of Pontiac, battling its own budget challenges, raised the costs for the festival. “They came after us for additional fees, wanting to pay for police, wanting to rent the city streets,” Witz said.

So, Arts, Beats & Eats found its way to Royal Oak in 2010, which Witz calls “a real blessing ... While the festival expenses went up, the revenue, attendance and stature of the festival got a whole new life."

Indeed, cooperation between festivals and local municipalities or other governmental entities is a key to success, explained Steven Wood Schmader, president and chief executive officer of the International Festivals and Events Association.

“We work around the world with governments at national and state levels and those obviously play some role because there are tax dollars being directed to or taken away from most of the events,” Schmader explained.

But the success of the “average’ festival is locally determined, he says. “They bind a community together, especially in the tough economic times,” Schmader says. “When people don’t have a lot of money and can’t take the big vacations, their local events become kind of an outlet for them. It might be the only chance people have to take their family and see and do things and such an event.”

The Michigan Festivals and Events Association coordinates with Travel Michigan, the tourism branch of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., but has no formal partnership, Bila said:

“We’re working right now on identifying some areas that we can work on stronger together."

For more information on Michiganfestivals, go to

Sandra Svoboda is a Grosse Pointe Park-based freelance journalist and formerly a staff writer at the Metro Times in Detroit and The (Toledo) Blade. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and history from Indiana University and a master’s degree in public administration from Wayne State University.


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