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Rain takes toll on Johnson City Umoja Festival

Rex Barber • Aug 13, 2013 at 9:06 AM

A torrential downpour Saturday probably negatively affected attendance at this year’s Umoja/Unity Festival in downtown Johnson City, according to one organizer.

Rain began falling around 3 p.m. Saturday and by 4 p.m. an estimated 2.5 inches of water had soaked Johnson City. Many downtown roads flooded. Vendor tents at Umoja were knocked down.

“It held our crowd down for Saturday and that was, I guess, about the only real negative that we had,” organizer Ralph Davis said Monday morning. “We felt like it was a good festival. We had good participation.”

The rainstorm Saturday afternoon may have negatively affected the festival, but people returned for musical performances at 7 and 9:30 that night by Skin Deep and Lakeside, Davis said.

The 17th Umoja Festival was held in downtown again this year. Several years ago it was held at Freedom Hall Civic Center. The festival originally began many years ago as a Carver community picnic.

Last year, the crowd that gathered in downtown for the festival was estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000 during the two days it was held.

Davis had no doubt the crowd would be smaller this year. He could not estimate the crowd size yet, and said the rain will probably make it more difficult to get a good estimate.

This is only the second time, Davis said, that rain has affected the festival.

“Usually we deal more with heat than we do with rain,” he said. “But the move downtown has been a positive move. We’ve experienced a lot bigger crowds, people coming out earlier because we’re downtown, I think.”

He said Umoja special events like the 5K race held Friday night, the Saturday morning parade that features Shaka Zulu — a stilt walker from New Orleans, and a new boxing event Saturday were all very popular features of the festival.

Davis said the goal for festival organizers is to get attendance up to around 50,000 participants.

“That has been our goal,” he said. “And we feel like we’re getting there and we feel like it’s just going to take some more time. We just have to keep working, keep doing positive things and find out what works and what doesn’t work.”

The boxing event was a new idea and will return next year. The 5K is in its third year and will stay. A young music stage that features music younger festivalgoers would appreciate will also stay a part of the festival.

“We’ve really tried to make it friendly for everybody and diverse,” Davis said. “But, like I say, it’s a work in progress.”

Davis said he still finds people in the community who do not know about the Umoja Festival and what it is.

“So that is a task that we face, that we’re trying to educate the community of what Umoja is, what it’s about,” he said. “We feel like with education and with the more people know about what we are and what we do, the better the festival will become.”

Davis said the other major downtown Johnson City festival — the Blue Plum Festival — is very different from Umoja. The two festivals should not be compared, he said. Blue Plum draws an estimated 80,000 people to the downtown area each June.

“People are always trying to compare us to Blue Plum,” Davis said. “We don’t want to be compared to Blue Plum or any other festival. We are Umoja. We’re not in competition with anybody else to see who can draw the most people down.”

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