Feature Article - October 2010
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The Big Event

Communities Find New Ways to Host Elaborate Fests

By Wynn St. Clair

The warning sirens began wailing shortly before 4 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1999, waking Clarksville, Tenn., residents from their sleep and forcing them to leave their homes and find shelter somewhere else. Less than 20 minutes later, an F3 tornado ripped through the downtown area. There were no deaths, but the heart of the city—its downtown—was completely destroyed.

The Montgomery County Courthouse, the newspaper building and several old churches were severely damaged. The ravaged area drew comparisons to bombed-out London during World War II. James Lee Whitt, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, couldn't hide his shock when he toured the city the following day.

"Wow," he exclaimed. "It's like someone dropped a bomb on it. That's just what it looks like."

Not long after the tornado wreaked havoc on Clarksville, city leaders unveiled a five-year plan to rebuild the downtown. Even optimists, though, wondered if the downtown could be brought back to life. The devastation was just so great.

As part of the initiative, Doug Barber, the special events manager at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Convention & Visitors Bureau, was tapped to create a festival that would help lure people back to the downtown area.

As a result, Rivers & Spires—an outdoor music and crafts festival—was created and made its debut in 2002 as a salute to the returning soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. Though it rained during the inaugural event and the festival lost $30,000, organizers knew they had something special. With determination and a line of credit from an understanding bank, they began planning the next year's festival.

They paid off their debt within two years, and the festival soon began topping "best fest" lists across the country, proving that hard work and creativity can lead to a successful festival in even the most difficult circumstances.

"We're really proud of our event," Barber said. "We're proof you can be young and still be successful. My goal had always been to get regionally recognized in five years, when in fact we were internationally recognized after only five years."

Clarksville is just one example of how North American communities are implementing new ways to run special events that draw patrons and turn a profit. When special events are done right, they boost both the local economy and the community's reputation.

Event organizers take pride in what they do, and none hesitated when asked to share the secrets of their success. The festivals featured in this article might vary in size and scope, but they all care about quality. Their organizers pay attention to the little details, worrying as much about portable toilets as they do about sponsorships. They consider their steering committee as important as the headlining band.

"All it takes is thinking outside the box," Barber said. "It can work, it can be done, and it can be one small portion that makes it work. It's easy to say that 'something won't work in our community,' but you can take an idea and make it work for you. You can make it your own."