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Farmington City Council decides on Founders Festival direction for 2021

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published September 22, 2020


FARMINGTON — A new direction for Farmington’s flagship Founders Festival has been determined.

Farmington City Council members unanimously agreed Sept. 2 to pursue the event under a hybrid city-sponsored and city-authorized model, in which the city authorizes the direction of the event but contracts an event planner to produce and finance it. The city is currently talking with Julie Law, of 360 Event Productions, who was tapped by the festival’s former owner, the Chamber of Commerce, for a possible one-year contract to produce the 2021 festival.

A contractual agreement has not yet been signed. Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman said the city has received a draft contract from Law with plans for a joint review Sept. 21, after press time. Law could not be reached for comment by press time.

The Chamber of Commerce relinquished its role of the 56-year-long tradition June 29.

Little more than a month ago, City Council members were discussing the option of creating a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization led by community members to produce the festival. As the clock kept ticking, however, Bowman realized the time needed to establish the nonprofit and outfit it with members would leave them little time to actually plan the festival for next year.

“Here we are rolling into October, and I’m hearing that most sponsorships want to start securing their next year by November (or) December. We’re really working under a time crunch,” Bowman said.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa was happy to see the city pivot its organizational approach, citing that the city-sponsored/city-authorized approach better aligns with feedback he received from residents through an online survey.

According to the poll data, 43.2% of the total 456 respondents said they wanted to see a “city-owned, city-operated” structure for the festival moving forward; 28.3% said they wanted a “city-owned, outsourced management/execution” structure; 17.8% said they wanted a “third party-owned-and-operated” event; and 10.7% voted “other.”

“I think (residents) were pretty clear that having the city at the top in terms of direction is what they wanted,” LaRussa said. “I’m encouraged that we’re moving in a direction that’s consistent with the feedback we got.”

While LaRussa expressed some concern Sept. 2 about not seeking competitive bids from the start, Bowman said doing so might set the city further back in an already limited timeframe. Bowman said Law’s company jumps to the top of the list, given her experience producing the festival, her connections with key stakeholders and an understanding that the city would like to return the festival to downtown.

With Law, or any other event production company, at the helm, the community-driven efforts that have helped to produce the festival in years past aren’t thrown out the window.

“We’re not bringing in outsiders. We’re not bringing in somebody else to do the ox roast when we can do it in house,” Bowman said. “That’s the beauty of having something as established as the Founders Festival. Regardless of who has sponsored or produced it, all the key players are there, and (Law has) told me it’s her intention to continue to work with them.”

A number of community groups and individuals have committed to helping, Bowman said.

The South Farmington baseball team, which normally hosts a fundraiser through the beer tent, has committed to returning. Farmers market General Manager Walt Gajewski has been tapped to help coordinate vendors and crafters, including incorporating the Saturday market directly into the festival this year. Bowman hopes to work with Downtown Development Authority Director Kate Knight to bring more downtown businesses out as vendors through sidewalk sales, similar to the DDA’s Ladies Night Out events.

The American Legion has stepped in to host the ox roast. KickstART Farmington Director Dwayne Hayes offered to assist with incorporating art into the festival, as well as rounding up volunteers and being a liaison for other downtown businesses. The Farmington Area Jaycees have expressed interest in helping in some capacity. Long-time parade organizer Roger Avie, who has helped put the parade on for over 15 years, has committed to coming back. Farmington Hills Council member Ken Massey has offered his connections with the city’s Special Services Department and other businesses to help where he can. The local Community Emergency Response Team has offered to assist law enforcement with traffic flow, parking and other safety matters.


Finding the festival’s identity
While the direction of the festival for 2021 has been decided, there’s still more work to be done, including planning the festival, and of top priority for Bowman and LaRussa are defining the festival’s identity.

“(The festival) has been through an identity crisis through all these organizations,” Bowman said. “I think it’s how it’s done that we need to really work on, but at the same time, we really need to get a handle on what it is. That’s a discussion for another day. … We’re far from done, but at least it’s moving forward.”

Based on poll results, community members come to the festival for a variety of reasons, including to explore food and beverage options, 73.5%; to shop with vendors, 73%; to reconnect or meet with friends, 69.3%; to attend other events such as the farmers market, Fido Festival or the ox roast, 67.5%; to celebrate Farmington’s heritage, 60.1%; for the parade, 56.8%; and to attend the concerts, 53.1%.

Community members expressed least interest in the color run, with only 34 votes, or 7.5%.

“I’m very interested in defining what it is, because form follows function. Unless we have a clear vision, it’s very difficult then to craft an event and experience when there’s differing points of view about what the thing actually is,” LaRussa said. “It may cascade into a larger discussion about maybe we need multiple events. Maybe we don’t need something that’s a one-size-fits-all model, but that’s one of the main points I want to see discussed at length.”

LaRussa said he’s most interested in digging into the dialogue around the strategic long-term plans for the festival beyond 2021.

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