Organizers estimate that approximately 80,000 people stopped by downtown Johnson City for this year's Blue Plum Festival. (Photos by Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
While many in attendance at the 15th annual Blue Plum Festival may have had things like fried food, craft beer and live music on the mind, the event’s organizers were already thinking ahead to next year’s jubilee.
As Blue Plum festivities continued Saturday, organizers said this year’s festival offered them insight into what they could do to help make it more sustainable.
The event is facilitated by the nonprofit Friends of Olde Downtowne, a group of volunteers who work to promote and sustain downtown Johnson City. Because the festival — and other events like the First Friday festivals — relied on volunteer efforts, Friends Secretary Shannon Castillo said the festival’s life expectancy has always been uncertain.
“When you’re a total volunteer (organization) and completely dependent on sponsors, that doesn’t say sustainable,” Castillo said. “But now we’re looking at it through a different lens.”
Under the guidance of sponsors, Castillo said that, this year, the Friends board created a new event that was designed to help recirculate money back into the festival.
“That’s how we kind of came up with the craft beer event,” she said. “Now we’re thinking ... what would it be like if we had other ticketed events that helped give revenue to Friends of Olde Downtown that then help us bring bigger and better music, vendors and events into downtown.”
The craft beer event, dubbed Blue Hop Brew Haha, allowed participants to sample 20 different craft beers for $20. Castillo said the event sold out of tickets two weeks after it was listed online. Friends President Jenny Lockmiller added that much of the success of the Blue Hop Brew Haha can be attributed to one of the events sponsors, Holston Distributing Co.
“Holston has been more of a partner than a sponsor,” Lockmiller said. “They were very supportive of our craft beer event. Holston really wants the festival to be sustainable and support itself as much as possible.”
While thoughts of next year’s festival weren’t far from Castillo or Lockmiller, both women said that, for the most part, they were thinking about how much fun they were having.
“This year has been really amazing to us,” Castillo said. “I’m having a ball.”
“I really just like the way this festival feels,” Lockmiller said. “We’re getting a big city vibe with the festival, but it has also got a small town vibe. I think it’s our biggest turnout ever, and it has a really happy vibe to it.”
Though she wasn’t sure of the actual attendance figure, Lockmiller said she estimated approximately 80,000 chose to spend part of their weekend at the festival.
Those who did attend may have noticed a few changes to the festival. One of those changes was made, Lockmiller said, in an effort to keep things cleaner during the festivities.
“This year, we went with a reusable cup,” she said. “When you purchased your wristband, you were offered a brushed aluminum cup. We’re trying to be a little greener and keep it cleaner.”
In addition to efforts to reduce waste, Castillo said the Friends board made efforts to increase the number of activities available to visitors. Along with events like Blue Hop Brew Haha, the board also invited some of the region’s storytellers in the East Tennessee State University storytelling program and Jonesborough Storytelling Guild. ETSU storytelling assistant professor Delanna Reed said she was impressed by the size of the audience.
“I felt so good about it,” Reed said. “I was impressed at the number of people, and that they stayed and listened. We’ve told here before in other situations and we couldn’t get an audience at all, so it was really exciting.”
While new events downtown met with success, new downtown businesses also benefited from the increase in foot traffic. Less than two weeks before thefestival, Jason Sabbides and David Shields were in the middle of renovating their gallery, The Warrior’s Canvas & Veterans Art Center, at 320 E. Main St., which is aimed at showcasing and selling art created by U.S. military veterans, and offering free art classes to veterans, as well. Sabbides said he and Shields completed those renovations before the festival, and that they were “overwhelmed” by the support they had received.
“It has been overwhelming, a little bit,” Sabbides said. “We’ve had a lot of support, and a lot of traffic coming in. There are a lot of people coming in elated and ecstatic about the idea of this place.”
Sabbides added that the gallery had received around $1,000, in both sales and donations, since the festival’s first day.
Along with newer events and businesses, other established activities persisted, as well:
• Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., in the parking lot at the corner of Tipton and Spring streets, the Little City Roller Girls conducted the third annual Blue Plum Roller Derby Championships. Four teams competed through the day for the coveted “Blue Plum Cup/Snow Globe,” as announcer Big Daddy Voodoo called it. The winning team was appropriately named the Blue Plums, who eked out a five-point first-place finish over the Black Eye team with 250 points.
• The fourth annual Urban Art Throwdown, a street art competition, was conducted in the road near the intersection of East Market and South Roan streets. This year’s competition was taken by Anton Slisko, a student in ETSU’s masters of fine arts program.
• Three stages were set up to accommodate the festival’s multitude of musical acts. The Jazz Stage, sponsored by ETSU, was erected on East Main Street in front of Nelson’s Fine Art and welcomed acts such as Greyscale, New York Jazz All-Stars with the Jazz Doctors, and the ETSU Jazz Combo; The Southern Stage was set along South Roan Street, between West State of Franklin Road and East Main Street, and featured acts like Option 22, Blue Ridge Entertainers, and Hillbilly Bad; and the Fountain Square Stage was set up on Buffalo Street, across from the area for which it was named, and featured performers such as the Smoky Mountain Bluegrass Band, the John Cowan Band, and the Jeff Austin Band.
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