Region is a haven for festivals

WHALE OF A TIME: While the Whaling City Festival in New Bedford was canceled this year after 45 years, the city will still be the site of about 30 festivals this season. Those include AHA! events, shown above, which take place in downtown New Bedford the second Thursday of each month. / COURTESY CITY OF NEW BEDFORD
WHALE OF A TIME: While the Whaling City Festival in New Bedford was canceled this year after 45 years, the city will still be the site of about 30 festivals this season. Those include AHA! events, shown above, which take place in downtown New Bedford the second Thursday of each month. / COURTESY CITY OF NEW BEDFORD

The Great Chowder Cook-off in Newport brings in a stellar group of chefs to compete with Rhode Island’s best. Chowder luminaries arrived this year from restaurants in California, Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington State – not to mention from across the ocean.
“The chef who beat me this year was from Westport in County Mayo, Ireland,” said Scott Cowell, owner and chef at Melville Grille in Portsmouth, who won second place in the seafood chowder category in the June 7 competition. “He had a great chowder and they were fantastic people. I make a great chowder and I’ll be back next year.”
The chowder cook-off, which also includes categories for clam chowder and creative chowder, is one of a colorful and varied array of food, music, cultural and recreational festivals that bring thousands of visitors, and their tourism dollars, into Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.
While many of those festivals are thriving, one of the longest running, the Whaling City Festival in New Bedford, was canceled this year after 45 years. The festival board announced the cancellation in a June 17 press release, citing “challenging economic conditions resulting from a decrease in corporate sponsorship, an increase in operating costs and a decrease in volunteers.”
Yet despite the region’s ongoing struggle to escape the after-effects of recession, local festival operators and supporters don’t see the New Bedford festival’s demise as a sign of things to come for their events.
“It’s definitely unfortunate that the Whaling City Festival was canceled,” said Dagny Ashley, tourism director for New Bedford. “The police union is going to do a carnival on the same weekend in the same location.”
New Bedford will still be the site of about 30 festivals this season, said Ashley.
The 2014 season includes the 100th anniversary of the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament from July 31 to Aug. 3, the largest Portuguese festival in New England. Whaling City Festival board President Allen Richard told Providence Business News that keeping the festival open later might have kept it going this year.
“We only had approval to keep the festival going until 8 o’clock for about the last seven years, so a lot of our out-of-state vendors didn’t want to come,” he said. “The vendors come from Tennessee, Georgia and Florida and all over. They make a lot of their money on Friday night because people come after work. The vendors don’t want to shut down at 8 o’clock and sit in a hotel.
“We asked the city for approval to keep the festival going until 10 o’clock because we wanted to add a laser light show,” said Richard. “In April, we got approval from the city to keep it open until 9 o’clock [but] it was too late to confirm some of the sponsors.”
The festival had a projected budget gap of $7,000, said Richard.
“The Whaling City Festival is a free, family festival. We have lots of activities for kids, different ones every year,” said Richard, who started volunteering with the festival as a teenager, when his father was a festival volunteer.
“I’m 42 years old and I’ve been doing it since I was 15,” said Richard. “I’m sad. The day the board decided to cancel the festival, it was like people planning a funeral for a family member.”
The board will consider in the coming weeks whether to revive the festival, which is not a city-sponsored event, next year, said Richard.
Myrna George, president and CEO of the South County Tourism Council, is among those who think most local festivals are doing fine.
“I don’t think we can have too many festivals,” she said. “You need a critical mass of activities to bring someone in from more than 50 miles away and have them spend the night, which is a true visitor in terms of tourism,” said George. “So we’re offering a cornucopia of activities. The size of our state is a huge advantage because of the accessibility to all of those activities. “We just had the Scottish Highland Festival,” said George about the June 14 festival at the Washington County Fairgrounds. She also points to large and popular festivals such as the Washington County Fair, scheduled this year from Aug. 13-17; the 30th Charlestown Chamber of Commerce Seafood Festival, this year from Aug. 1-3; and the Rhythm & Roots Festival, now in its 17th year as a Labor Day weekend tradition, this year from Aug. 29-31.
Mark Brodeur, state tourism director, agreed with George that “there can’t be too many events to draw people to Rhode Island. … Our festivals focus on seafood or music or sailing or history and many visitors will go to more than one event.
“Typically, the festivals are very regular, year after year – very rarely do we see them cancel,” said Brodeur.
“Staging events has become much more expensive and companies have been challenged to have the extra dollars to support events, but somehow the festivals manage to keep going year after year,” he added.
“It’s hard to get sponsors,” acknowledged Ron Kitt, owner of Kitt Kites in Newport, who has sponsored the Newport Kite Festival, this year July 12-13 at Brenton Point State Park, since 2009.
“This year, I’ve gotten a few sponsors – New England Solar Concepts, Zipcar and an electric bike company,” he said. “Generally, I pay for the festival out of my own pocket. I have a mobile kite shop at Brenton Point all summer, so the kite sales help pay for the festival. I try to break even, but I often lose money.”
Kitt also owns a printing business and continues sponsoring the kite festival to encourage families to get outdoors, away from computers and cellphones. Thousands of people, including kite enthusiasts from other states with specialty kites, show up every year.
“Everything is free. I pay face painters to come and paint faces for free. I pay for permits and dumpsters, port-a-johns, environmental police officers and parking staff,” said Kitt. “The only thing to pay for is food. I have a food vendor or two – this year we are adding a food truck with lobster rolls. And people can buy kites.” As for the bigger Newport festivals, in addition to the city’s signature Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, the city is buzzing.
“In addition to the chowder cook-off, we have a Celtic festival, a reggae festival, a blues jam and our Newport Concert Series with 18 shows,” said Mike Martin, director of Newport Waterfront Events.
“The concert series has about 1,700 seats in the tents and general admission that gets attendance at each show to about 2,200,” said Martin.” We also host the Newport Summer Comedy series, which has six acts booked this season.
“There’s been an appetite for events at the waterfront. Our festivals are going strong and sponsorship is healthy for us. We have a lot of long-term partnerships,” said Martin.
There are respectful understandings that minimize competition, he said.
“We try to be sensitive when we’re booking things, whether it’s about the kind of music or the date of certain events, but I don’t think there are too many festivals,” said Martin.
“It’s early in the season, but our numbers of advance tickets have been either at or above previous years,” said Martin. “Where we are today with ticket sales, given good to fair weather, people will come out and things are looking rosy.”
Cowell called The Great Chowder Cook-Off, “the most prestigious chowder event in the country.” He’s participated in the event for four years, winning second place his first year and first place the following two years.
“This year was one of the best attended ever,” he said.
“Festivals are very important for the state and for the participants,” said Cowell, who sees the long-term payoff on his bottom line. “There’s a huge benefit. I have people from the chowder cook-off coming into the restaurant all year long.” •

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