Chamber relinquishes role in producing annual Founders Festival

Community member organizes virtual 2020 festival amid cancellation

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published July 6, 2020

 Sabina Suleymanova and her daughter Lola enjoy an evening at 2018 Founders Festival in Shiawassee Park.

Sabina Suleymanova and her daughter Lola enjoy an evening at 2018 Founders Festival in Shiawassee Park.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes


FARMINGTON/HILLS — It was already canceled for the 2020 season due to COVID-19, but the future of the annual Founders Festival just got a little more uncertain as the Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce announced June 29 that it is relinquishing its role in producing the annual festival for the years to come.

“This is a conversation we’ve been having for quite some time,” Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Connor Osborn said. “With us not being able to host it this year due to the health and safety of our community due to COVID-19, we were really able to take a step back and think about what our mission is here and how the Founders Festival relays into that.

“Ultimately, it didn’t align with what our mission is in supporting our business community to the fullest. Especially now with all the changes and impacts on our business community that have happened these last few months, we want to make sure we’re present and ready to do what we need to do to benefit and be an asset to the businesses that are our members.

“After talking about it, we felt it was best to relinquish our controlling efforts for the festival to allow a new party to come into play and pick it up and kind of reinvigorate it,” he added.

The Founders Festival began 56 years ago, first organized by the Chamber of Commerce before being passed to a community consortium of volunteers who put the festival together. Farmington’s Downtown Development Authority took control of the festival around 2008 before giving it back to the chamber in 2013.

DDA Director Kate Knight said that, while she hopes to see the festival continue, the DDA has no intentions of picking it back up again.

“The answer is no. It’s not part of our mission currently, and it’s not part of our budget. It’s true the DDA did at one time run the festival, about seven years ago for about six or seven years. That is just recent enough that we’ve learned from the exercise, and our mission has really moved on,” Knight said, adding that the DDA would still like to be involved in the conversation and is willing to host the event downtown.

“We’d be delighted to have some or all within the downtown footprint. We just don’t have the resources to produce it.”

Knight said the DDA at one point had four times the staff to be able to produce the event, which it doesn’t have today.

Conversations from passionate residents and business owners erupted in the City Council chambers this past February over the festival’s location, and Osborn said those voices and conversations certainly had an impact on the chamber’s decision to relinquish its role.

“What we saw is there is a passion in our community from those that live here and the businesses that are here, and how they think the festival should be run and what it should be focused on. That’s great,” Osborn said. “We love seeing that passion in our community, and we’re very hopeful that some of the individuals possibly at that City Council meeting might take it upon themselves to spearhead the festival going into 2021.

“We feel as though we’re relinquishing it, (but) it’s not going to be the end of the festival. … Now there’s an opportunity to really form the festival into what they used to remember or what they feel is the best direction moving forward. I’m personally excited to see what comes of that.”

Osborn admits the festival is “a beast to put on” but thinks it’s doable. In an official statement, Osborn announced the chamber would not be responsible for finding a new organizing entity, though it would still be available as a resource for whoever decides to take on the festival.

With the newfound free time not planning the summer event, Osborn said the chamber will be shifting its focus to providing more events, opportunities and education to its members as they move forward through the rest of the year and adjust to a new normal.


Founders Festival 2020 goes virtual
The physical Founders Festival event, slated for July 9-12 this year, has been canceled, but that hasn’t stopped Dan Boujoulian, who runs a Farmington-Farmington Hills community Facebook group with roughly 1,700 members, from organizing a virtual festival in its place this year.

Boujoulian, whose livestream event is scheduled for 1-4 p.m. July 18, said he was inspired to organize something virtual after reconnecting with friends over Zoom and FaceTime during the pandemic and seeing how possible it is.

“I thought it would be cool if we could replicate (the festival) walking through Farmington and meeting the merchants and helping a lot of these people who may rely on summer money,” Boujoulian said. “Now that it’s ripped from them, what can we do to help that community out? … If we can let people show off their artwork in a livestream — and then (people) can join their mailing list from there — then that artist creates a connection with them, and they can keep in touch later on.”

Boujoulian said he plans to have a livestream where merchants can show off their products and possibly a concurrent livestream of music, though those details are still being worked on.

Knight is in full support of the virtual event this year.

“If you had asked me about a virtual Founders Festival a year ago, I would have doubted the efficacy and appeal, but these are really difficult times,” she said, adding the virtual aspect allows for a broader reach than the physical festival allows. “Founders Festival is such a beloved brand and community tradition. Folks have had practice over the last few months of engaging and attending events, and appreciating the community online — they’re sort of prepared for it. I think it bodes well for engaging merchants and businesses.”

Knight pointed to the success of the DDA’s Ladies Night In — formerly Ladies Night Out — event that saw almost double the attendance for the online event as it would have seen if it had been held physically on the rainy day for which it was scheduled.

“There are a number of ways to reinterpret the festival and have that brand evolve,” Knight said about the future of the festival. “How timely that COVID-19 is forcing us to innovate in all these ways with public space and public programming. The thought of a virtual Founders Festival is the right idea at the right time.”