Merchants: Little Chicago Festival exceeded expectations

Tony Casey • Updated Aug 16, 2016 at 5:20 PM

The Johnson City Downtown Merchants Association meets Wednesday morning to discuss the Little Chicago Downtown Music and Arts Festival it put on last weekend.

Its members will face a problem: Finding anything that went wrong.

Currently, they seem to be at a loss for negatives, only seeing positives in the results.

“I think it went really well because we had a lot of people that did a great job and performed their tasks well,” JCDMA President Travis Woodall said. “We really did this by committee; it wasn't the leadership.”

Woodall reported that about 3,000 alcohol wristbands were sold, bringing in approximately $11,000. Organizers have said that any money brought in — along with the donations of businesses — would be pumped directly into downtown Johnson City and the businesses that operate there. Focused on family fun, music, food and the arts, another priority of these organizers has been to pay the local talent that provided the performances and soundtrack for festival goers.

According to the merchants, all of those aspects were extremely successful.

Many of the downtown merchants have worked on putting together the Blue Plum Festivals that have taken place in Johnson City since 1999, so to say they’re not practiced at the process of putting on a downtown business-focused festival might not be entirely true.

Their experience was put to use this year for a festival many have treated as the event that’s replaced Blue Plum. The Blue Plum Festival announced massive changes to its original layout going into the 2016 festival, which took part in the first weekend of June, with mixed reactions from vendors and festival attendees.

But in putting together an alternative, this year presented a special challenge for the merchants’ group. After forming the JCDMA, they only had a few months to organize and put together a festival.

Sarah Fagley, owner of The Local Company at 240 E. Main St., said the merchants were firing on all cylinders to put on the Little Chicago Festival. She and many of her business-owning peers reported record-setting days in terms of sales, all while the many people who filled out the downtown streets collectively danced to local bands.

“It was awesome,” she said. “It was way better than we anticipated. It was a really special atmosphere out there.”

The volunteers, too, Fagley said, seemed to be extremely invested in the festival and making sure everything was done correctly. After this week, the merchants will have a catered party for the volunteers who played crucial roles in the Little Chicago Festival.

One difference between Little Chicago and recent Blue Plum Festivals Fagley noticed was the prominence of the Family Fun Zone being centrally located in the middle of the festival. With such positioning, Fagley said the festival, under the Johnson City Brewing Company’s Kat Latham’s direction, took on an extra family-friendly tone that kept families out later than she’d seen before.

That family-friendly atmosphere was confirmed by the Johnson City Police Department.

Sgt. Terry Hardin, who’s part of the JCPD’s community policing unit, said the Little Chicago Festival was impressive in its lack of trouble.

“Really, it went really smoothly,” he said. “It was a good crowd. I’d love for every festival we work to go like that.”

Hardin tipped his cap to the organization of the merchants in putting on the festival. He said during the festival’s hours, there were only two arrests, and it was the same person — a person familiar to the JCPD in downtown Johnson City — who ended up being locked up for drinking too much and behaving badly.

Two arrests during a two-day festival, Hardin said, is very small compared to what the JCPD has gotten used to.

Teri Dosher, owner of the Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room, also reported sales four times more than she did during the Blue Plum Festivals in the past two years. She, and many others, look at Little Chicago as the new Blue Plum Festival.

“I think of it as Blue Plum with another name, and more attention to the concerns of the merchants,” Dosher said.

With its financial issues and its former director Deanna Hayes accused of stealing thousands from the organization, it’s unknown whether the Blue Plum Festival will take place in 2017 or be supplanted altogether by Little Chicago.

By having increased visibility with no vendor tents directly in front of her shop, many new customers came into the Willow Tree. Dosher said once she gets a customer through the door, she does well to make them a repeat customer, with a focus on teas, coffees and craft beer, as well as her approach to live music and community.

Many of the merchants joined festival goers and collected during the closing hours of the festival in front of the stage at Main and Buffalo streets to enjoy a DJ set by Tomi Breese. Breese traversed musical eras and genres as he spun tunes for the large crowd that danced in front of him.

At the other end of the festival, at the Bud Light Stage in front of the Nelson Fine Art Center, local band Indighost rocked to an equally large crowd.

Ben Schaller, who worked multiple spots at the festival, said the better parts of the Blue Plum Festival — food, community and the arts — seems to have evolved into the new Little Chicago Festival, which took over many original aspects and ideas of the other downtown Johnson City festival.

“This is what the Blue Plum should be,” he said.

Woodall said they will continue to put together the financials of the festival, but the public can expect to enjoy another Little Chicago Festival next year. He’s leaning toward not changing anything significant after this year’s success, but will be survey the festival-goers over social media, as well as the vendors who took park in the festival to see if they’re are any strong recommendations.

Woodall said 99.9 percent of the feedback he had received had been positive.

“It was a home run,” Woodall said.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected] Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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