Summer festivals brings crowds downtown

Nathan Baker • Mar 30, 2019 at 9:59 PM

For years, Johnson City’s summer entertainment schedule was held by two main festivals, Umoja and Blue Plum. The Little Chicago Music and Arts festival joined the lineup three years ago, but organizers and attendance numbers say there’s plenty of room to party.

Umoja Festival

Johnson City’s Umoja Festival has its roots in a picnic organized in the 1970s by local citizens’ groups and prominent black members of the community.

The Unity Picnic continued annually for several years, but it eventually fell by the wayside. Then, in 1997, some of the picnic’s founders returned to the idea of celebrating unity with a weekend festival.

They named it “Umoja,” Swahili for “unity,” and set its mission to celebrate ethnic diversity and to eliminate the barriers of race and cultures.

Now going on 22 years, the festival brings food and merchandise vendors, entertainers and thousands of people of various races and cultures to downtown Johnson City. The festival is capped by Sunday church services.

Look to join together and celebrate this year on Sept. 13 and 14.

Blue Plum Festival

Two years after Umoja started, Johnson City’s second summer festival, the Blue Plum, flooded downtown streets.

Normally the first weekend in June, the popular free festival hosts music stages, vendors, carnival rides and events in Founders Park and the neighboring Pavilion.

The annual event started in the downtown core, where Main and Market streets were closed to vehicle traffic and attendees wandered from vendors set up on sidewalks to temporary stages built on Buffalo Street. A format change by the festival’s board, however, moved it to Founders and instituted admission charges in hopes of raising revenue to invest back into the events.

Asking people to pay for the once free festival wasn’t popular with some, so the board eliminated the tickets prices the following year, but kept the festival in the park.

Once again free, attendance naturally increased, and Blue Plum bills itself as the top summer family festival in Johnson City.

Little Chicago Music and Arts Festival

Downtown merchants saw an opportunity after Blue Plum moved and set up their own festival, the Little Chicago Music and Arts Festival, once again on the city’s streets.

The Downtown Merchants Association founded the annual event in 2016, bringing more than a dozen musical acts and activities to draw people downtown.

Though free, the Merchants Association raised more than $11,000 in that first year from the sales of wrist bands needed to purchase alcohol. As a business-oriented organization, the funds were used to help downtown commerce thrive.

In subsequent years, the festival has grown, bringing crowds out to celebrate music, art and each other.

Though it’s the newest festival, Little Chicago has laid claim to the second weekend in August for years to come.

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