Founders Festival stays in the park, with a condition

The Greater Farmington Founders Festival will spend another year in Shiawassee Park, but Farmington city officials want to take a hard look at the future of the community’s signature event.

Chamber Director Connor Osborn Founders Festival
Chamber Director Connor Osborn talks with city council members on Monday about the 2020 Founders Festival.

Council members during their regular meeting on Monday approved an event application that included street closures and temporary liquor license applications. The volunteer-driven Festival is managed by the Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce, with help from 360 Event Productions.

Chamber Executive Director Connor Osborn said organizers hope to beat severe summer weather and the effects of competing with the Ann Arbor Art Fair by holding the event a week earlier, July 9-12.

Residents and business owners spoke in favor of bringing the Festival back to downtown Farmington, where the bulk of the event was held for 50 years. Stefanie Williams said it figured prominently in plans for a Farmington High 30th class reunion.

“We always have it centered around the Founders Festival,” she said, adding that classmates meet in the beer tent and then move on to other downtown establishments. “We have in Farmington a great pride in our city… The downtown is the heart of the city.”

Jason Schlaff, who co-owns Farmington Brewing Company, said his business increased by more than 30 percent when the Festival was held downtown. “Over that month last year, we were down about the same amount,” he said.

Storms last year

Osborn said complaints from Chamber members about parking and street closures prompted the 2019 move to Shiawassee Park. He ticked off benefits that included the return of Swing Farmington’s Thursday swing dance, Rhythms in Riley Park, and the Farmington Farmers Market, which all moved out of the Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park during the festival. 

Two nights of severe storms hit hard last year, and Osborn said the park was easier to evacuate, with the grounds cleared in 10 minutes both nights. Road closures, traffic, and parking were more easily managed, he said.

The park also allows room for the Festival to grow this year, with 20 carnival rides, Osborn said.

Council discussion

Council members had questions about how the Festival will collaborate with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), about the muddy grounds after last year’s heavy rains, and what efforts were made to get feedback from Chamber members about the move.

Osborn said he’s in talks with DDA Executive Director Kate Knight about cross-promoting downtown events, and a booth on the festival grounds will have information about what else is happening in town. He said the Chamber board did not host a “town hall” meeting, but regularly takes feedback from members.

The Chamber has turned to golf course owners for answers about handling the rain and drainage, he said.

Council member Maria Taylor asked Chamber members present how taking the Festival out of downtown helped local businesses. Board president Duane Reynolds said he was surprised by the recent pushback; the Chamber’s downtown members had long complained about the event’s negative affect on their businesses.

“In terms of service for downtown businesses, we’re trying to represent all our Chamber members, to whom we owe our first allegiance,” he said.

Board member Annette Compo said she was disappointed by the negative feedback and encouraged those who complained to volunteer with the Chamber.

“This is a great time to volunteer,” she said. “That’s what this is about, community and celebration.”

‘Form follows function’

Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa, council liaison for the Festival, felt the event has reached a critical point in its evolution.

“I think it’s finally time that we figure out what this is, what it’s supposed to be,” LaRussa said. “Then form follows function.” He added that there were no faults with the Chamber’s event application, and “as finders of fact, I think we have to approve it.”

Mayor Sara Bowman asked about delaying the decision to give the Chamber time to talk with downtown business owners and residents. Julie Law of 360 Event Productions said delays would affect their ability to recruit sponsors.

Delays could also affect liquor license applications, and moving the Festival could affect DDA and Farmers Market calendars, which are already approved, council members noted.

“I’d rather have a bunch of dissatisfied residents with the event than not have the event at all,” LaRussa said.

Bowman suggested language, included in the motion, that requires the Chamber to engage the community and then report back at a March council meeting.

At the close of the meeting, Taylor suggested forming a foundation similar to one in Northville that manages its large events. That could provide an avenue for residents to take ownership of the festival.

“We have a big opportunity ahead of us,” she said.

Clarification: Language has been added to the original version of this article to clarify a question from council members and that downtown Chamber members complained about the festival. 

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