Searching for identity, Founders Festival moves to city park

As it searches for a new identity, Farmington’s signature summer event will move in 2019 from the city’s central business district to Shiawassee Park.

City council members on Monday unanimously approved the Greater Farmington Area Chamber’s special event application for Founders Festival, slated July 18-21. All activities, except the parade, will be held in the city-owned park.

Chamber director Mary Martin said the organization’s Board of Directors approved the move in November. The request includes closure of Shiawassee Street, from Farmington Road to Power Road, reserving the park’s largest parking lot for vendors.

Last year, organizers reduced the festival’s downtown footprint, with children’s activities and a new “Fido Fest” in the park, while food trucks, vendors/crafters, and the beer tent remained downtown, occupying a short stretch of Farmington Road and the Downtown Farmington Center parking lot’s west side.

Martin said the move comes after a break-even year and mostly negative feedback from downtown businesses. In fact, she said, some businesses have left the Chamber because of issues created by the Festival.

“I think that realization and the utilization of the park last year moved us down that road,” she said.

The Festival has evolved from years past, when several days of events were held around Farmington and Farmington Hills. Changes over the past 10-15 years have included construction of a pavilion and park, the loss of quality crafters when Art on the Grand become a stand-alone event, reduction of historical elements, and changes in management.

Martin said through all that, the Festival has struggled with its identity.

“We are trying to guide this more into an entertainment kind of festival,” she said, “with family-friendly events.”

Officials asked about promoting the move and pointed out the lack of “connectivity” between downtown and the park. Council member Bill Galvin said downtown restaurants rely on the Festival, which boosts business during a typically slow time of year. He suggested surveying business owners and residents about the event.

While the Chamber has already connected with business owners, Martin said, there may not be time to conduct and evaluate a second survey. Restaurant owners will be encouraged to take advantage of the new location, by offering shuttle service or hosting a food tent in the park.

Council member Joe LaRussa asked about the fate of other activities held during Festival weekend, like the popular Farmington High Band Boosters Bingo tent. Martin said organizers of those events will have to apply for their own city permits.

Communicating the change is a top priority, Martin said. The Chamber will create a separate work plan for signage and promotion. She has also met with Public Safety and Public Works staff to work out solutions to their concerns about lighting, security, and parking.