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Farmington residents, businesses rally against Founders Festival location

2020 Founders Festival unanimously approved for Shiawassee Park

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published February 24, 2020

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Before City Council even approached the topic of the Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 Founders Festival at a Feb. 18 meeting, passion and tension filled the air. 

One by one residents and downtown Farmington businesses owners spoke out during public comment, stating their dissent for hosting the festival at Shiawassee Park for a second year. 

The festival made the full move to the park in 2019. A portion of the festival’s programming — minus the beer tent and live entertainment — had moved to the park in 2018. 

Residents claimed that the festival was unsuccessful at the park last year, and business owners said the loss of foot traffic created by the festival’s move hurt their businesses. 

Resident Stefanie Williams said those opposed aren’t advocating for a full move back to downtown, just for activities like the beer tent and live entertainment to return downtown, providing a central downtown meeting location for festival-goers as those activities once did. 

Farmington Brewing Co. owner Jason Schlaff said that when the Founders Festival was downtown, his revenue increased by 33%. Last year, he saw his revenue during the festival weekend drop by around the same amount. 

Larry Sallen, of Clothes Encounters, said that the festival creates awareness of the downtown businesses for future festival-goers to come back to. 

Only two hours prior to the City Council meeting, resident Sheree Glynn collected signatures from 25 downtown business representatives who stated they want to see the festival return to downtown. 

Mayor Sara Bowman and Downtown Development Authority Director Kate Knight said they have heard support for and opposition to the festival’s move from residents and business owners alike. 

 

7 reasons the Founders Festival moved 

Chamber Director Connor Osborn detailed seven reasons the festival made the full move to Shiawassee Park in 2019, including feedback received at the time of the move from the public and businesses who were split on whether it was beneficial to host it downtown. 

Duane Reynolds, the board president of the chamber, said that in previous years, the chamber had received feedback from business members expressing the negatives — a lack of parking and access to roads for nonfestival traffic — with having the festival downtown. 

Also on the list was greater access to parking; increased safety measures in case of inclement weather, as the festival saw last year — it had to shut down two nights due to impending severe storms; less impact to traffic from fewer closed roads; and more room for the festival to grow and add new entertainment elements. 

The festival will be held a week earlier this year, July 9-12, to reduce competition with fairs like the the Ann Arbor Art Fair, and in the hope that the earlier dates may help with weather-related concerns, Osborn said. 

 

All under the Founders Festival umbrella 

With more events being planned by the city and the DDA than in years past — including Rhythms in Riley Park and a pop-up beer garden this year, the farmers market and Swing Farmington — all of which had to move out of Sundquist Pavilion for the festival —  Osborn’s ultimate goal is to gather all of the community’s offerings that weekend under a larger Founders Festival umbrella. 

He’s working with Knight to enhance cross-promotional opportunities and plans to have a booth at the festival with information about other happenings outside of the park. 

“We’re going to be encouraging and talking with these downtown businesses to do their own community-type event,” Osborn said. “We ultimately want to include our whole community, but with the chamber operating in both Farmington and Farmington Hills, we’re doing our best to encourage everyone to see all of our community.” 

However, the chamber owes its allegiance to its members first, Reynolds added. 

The 5K color run and parade will still travel through downtown, Osborn said, and Knight always suggests that DDA businesses, which may lose out on foot traffic due to the move, set up sidewalk sales or other methods to draw in festival-goers and retain the revenue they once saw. 

 

Council members weigh in 

Council members were torn about whether to approve the application Feb. 18 or postpone a decision. 

The chamber began organizing the event last October. This was the first public presentation to council and the community of the festival plans. No previous town halls or forums were held. 

Bowman feared that if the application wasn’t approved, there wouldn’t be a festival at all. She didn’t want to be the council that “kills the festival.”

Council member Joe LaRussa said he’d “rather have dissatisfied residents than not have a festival at all.” 

Council member Steve Schneemann said that on one hand he believes both the festival and the downtown benefit from the festival being downtown, but he also believes the festival wasn’t given a fair chance to be successful in the new location because it was evacuated on two nights due to storms last year. 

Julie Law, of 360 Event Productions, who works with the chamber on the festival, said postponing a decision would ultimately make the festival move backward instead of forward. She said potential and current sponsorships — the festival’s primary funding source — were at stake. 

Council unanimously approved the festival application to move forward, contingent upon Osborn seeking more community feedback and engagement and returning with some results at council’s March 16 meeting, adding that next year the conversation surrounding the signature community event needs to be different. 

As the City Council liaison to the chamber, LaRussa said he’s willing to lead that discussion. 

 

A change in discourse for 2021

Osborn said 100% of the festival’s activities will stay in Shiawassee Park this year, but the discussions around Founders Festival 2021 and who will be involved in those back-end organizational talks will be different. 

“We hear what everyone is saying. We see what’s posted online. We take that to heart. We listen and use that to better the festival. Obviously, this year there’s a lot of concerns with it, but for 2021, things will be different,” he said. “How that looks, I obviously can’t say right now … but a lot more people will be involved.” 

Bowman is optimistic residents can take their passion and align it with the chamber’s mission for the festival in the years to come. 

“I think the chamber is listening, but it’s difficult when there’s passion at that level. Once we get through that and we’re able to harness it and turn it more into a collaboration, I think we’re going to see great things.” 

Call Staff Writer Jonathan Shead at (586) 498-1093.

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