Experience from producing their first three episodes of WaterFire Sharon has organizers looking ahead with confidence to next year. In planning meetings that already have begun, they’ve set dates for 2014.
They expect to attract more crowds of visitors to the banks of the Shenango River for the downtown festival featuring music, participatory arts activities and lots of great food – with all of it aimed at community revitalization and strengthening the economy of the region.
The inaugural season turned out better than expected with more than 70,000 visitors over the three summer and fall Saturdays, said Robert “Bob” Wilson and Jennifer Barborak. They based attendance figures on estimates by police and organizers familiar with the annual Small Ships Revue and the former Bavarian Fun Fest, also held downtown.
“We would have been satisfied with 10,000 visitors for the first one but were successful far beyond what we envisioned at the beginning,” Wilson said. The president of Penn Ohio Metals and chairman of the WaterFire Sharon board of directors, listed estimates at about 35,000 for the first event and about 20,000 each for the other two.
Next year’s WaterFire Sharon dates are July 19, Aug. 23 and Sept. 27.
The team that relied on hundreds of volunteers learned they could be flexible in improving the event by incorporating changes from one date to the next. Barborak, who is operations manager, said they took suggestions from visitors, vendors and others and made changes to improve the flow of visitors throughout the downtown area, manage parking lots and shuttle buses – all the “nuts and bolts” that are best learned by doing them a few times.
She and Wilson both pointed to the participation of volunteers as crucial to WaterFire’s success, along with the financial support of donors – individuals as well as businesses – and government grants in producing a large-scale festival without an admission charge.
The corps of volunteers that started at about 350 has grown to more than 650 and they came from all across Mercer County as well as from out of the area.
“Volunteers began their work in January stacking firewood, and they finished by helping with the cleanup in October,” Barborak said. “People came from Kinsman and Grove City and Greenville. It was a true community effort. We worked with people we had never met before and now it’s like we’re afamily.”
She laughed while saying, “some people are having WaterFire withdrawal,” and added that they’re all welcome to stay in touch through e-mail and the website and to begin recruiting their friends to help the festival to grow.
Wilson said the community is starting to understand how WaterFire is being built as a regional event. Its initial economic impact was felt outside Sharon in such ways as hotel bookings and informal reports of an uptick in retail sales and meals served at restaurants. The manufacturer who works as a volunteer in community and economic development says there is plenty of potential for the impact to grow.
“We heard of restaurants in the area where people had to wait an hour and more to be served,” Wilson said. “We have had people in business telling us how they did and we will quantify that moving forward. It isn’t just thef act that food and artisan vendors did well and want to come back. We want anyone in our community – nonprofit and for-profit vendors – to come out and profit from all the people visiting our region.”
Making the most of WaterFire’s potential depends on participation by energetic local volunteers willing to help with the work of producing a festival capable of attracting visitors from the tri-state region and beyond. The first season drew first-time visitors from as far away as Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Ontario, Canada, as well natives who migrated elsewhere over the years but returned from California, Florida and elsewhere for a visit home to see what the festival was all about.
“The word is getting out, but now we need organization and structure to spread out the work load,” Wilson said. “We are looking for leaders who can put together teams so we can build an effective organization.”
He said WaterFire, which had a $500,000 budget, covered its expenses and will be funded with a $400,000 budget next year that will be a little less because certain capital equipment costs won’t recur.
“We’re pleased to say we reached a break-even point,” Wilson said. “We are going into season two without a deficit, so we are very encouraged by that.”
The board has set a goal of earmarking 15 percent of its annual budget for revitalization projects that will benefit all the communities of the Shenango Valley and Mercer County areas.
“For example, we can work to enhance the waterfront for multiple uses and multiple purposes,” Wilson said. “We can help to improve Bicentennial Park and create a downtown area where people from anywhere can kayak and canoe in the river. We can work to extend bicycle paths throughout all of our communities and we want to continue to promote the arts and cultural events throughout the region.
“As we bring money in, we want to find ways to feed it back into the community as much as possible.”
Paying costs will continue to depend on donations, he said, as well as seeking grants from foundation and government sources.
Visit PA, a bureau in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, provided $50,000 of this year’s $80,000 advertising budget that reached five Ohio and Pennsylvania metropolitan markets. Mercer County Tourist Promotion Agency provided $30,000.
State DCED officials came to see what the grant’s result was, as did the executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. The local board will compete again next year for funding from such sources, as well as for federal funds now that it can document the local commitment to development and revitalization that WaterFire represents, Wilson said.
“We have a track record now,” he said. “We are trying to strike the right balance of grants from state and federal sources and from our community and our local and regional businesses. If they aren’t able to contribute their treasure, we need to count on them through their volunteer efforts.”
Info: www.waterfiresharonpa.org. To volunteer, e-mail Barborak at email@example.com