The power of community events

The topic of events is a hot one in the downtown development field.

Community events and festivals — like the Flower Festival this weekend in Alpena — can often become the first thing associated with a downtown development authority, given their prominence and popularity.

Some people understand events as essential catalysts of a community’s revitalization.

Others see them as frivolous. Shouldn’t we be doing “real economic development,” instead of just planning parties?

At my organization’s strategic planning session this spring, half of my committee and board members thought we should be doing more events. The other half thought we should be doing less.

That “more events” perspective was echoed in the results from the Northeast Michigan Community Enhancement Survey. What was the top activity people desire for the region? More community-wide, free festivals.

Thunder Bay Arts — a partner on the survey and one of our major partners on downtown events — and I had the same question after hearing that result: Who is going to do the work? They, like me, feel at capacity for event organizing.

The revival of the Ice Festival, Shades of Fall, Art on the Bay, concerts during the Michigan Brown Trout Festival, the community chorus, year-round gallery receptions, and year-round musical concerts are all in their purview. All with one staff person and a small but dedicated crew of volunteers.

Many groups report that 10% of the people do 90% of the work. That is true across Alpena as a whole. It seems like 10% of the community serves on 90% of the boards and helps on 90% of the events.

Yet there is a desire for more.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, being connected to our community and the place we live is more important than ever. Festivals and community events are the few opportunities through which people — of all ages, demographics, careers, experiences, income levels, and identities — are able to mingle together in a shared space and have a shared experience.

Community-wide, free events like the Ice Festival, the Flower Festival, the Bolenz Jewelry Holiday Parade are a rare vision of a community where everyone can participate and everyone can share the delight of the event being hosted.

In the survey results, respondents indicated that the top reason they attend events is to socialize or meet friends. Having fun wasn’t even a top reason, nor interest in the subject matter. Instead, people want to socialize. To run into our neighbors. To meet new people.

Many of us feel fractured from each other. Those community-wide events give us a reason — an invitation — to come together. Thoughtfully organized events can transport us to a temporary world, where downtown is decorated with fresh flowers, where we can dance on 2nd Avenue or wait for Santa’s arrival. A temporary world we are invited to share with our neighbors, together.

A mutual friend recently relocated back to Alpena with her husband and baby from metro Detroit. When I asked what inspired her, she said she had attended the Ice Festival and then the Flower Festival last year, and wanted to come back, seeing how Alpena is changing.

Not such a frivolous endeavor to organize events after all.

It is not just in Alpena where volunteerism is at an all-time low. With long work hours, Little League tournaments, hockey practice, home chores, travel plans, family gatherings, I’m not surprised most people do not want to devote the time to do one more thing.

Friday Nights Downtown, River Fest, Venetian Nights: all successful events that went away because volunteers got burned out and no one wanted to carry the torch.

Without people who see the need and fill it, events go away.

Growing up, I don’t remember a Fourth of July or a Thanksgiving morning when my father was around.

Instead, he was organizing 5K runs. This year will be his 46th year.

You may think, who wants to give up their holiday to be marking race routes, handling registrations, and tracking results?

But I got to see him come home, jazzed about connecting with fellow runners, fulfilled after raising funds for important causes and giving back to the community where he lives.

If you enjoy the events you attend, get involved. Volunteer at an event. Pour beer at the Brown Trout Festival. Fundraise for the fireworks. Or create your own event.

The benefits will come back to you tenfold than the time and energy you put forth.

The more we have, the more our community thrives — and the more connected we will all be.


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