Festivals Span the Seasons
Festivals range from celebrations of seasons and culture to musical events in multiple genres. Art and food festivals also headline the district’s calendar, with drop-in musical jams, farmers’ markets and gallery walks bringing the number of yearly events to about 30.
“These events bring people here to experience the treasures of our community,” says Louise Gradwohl, executive director of OTCA. “They provide a way for people to engage, and help open their eyes and ears to a whole new environment.”
Two music festivals may well be the granddaddy of Old Town events. Started in the mid-1990s, JazzFest and BluesFest draw crowds of 10,000-plus each to the weekend events.
“We put Old Town back on the map with these two festivals,” says Terry Terry, president of MICA, the volunteer-driven association that hosts the events.
Terry says the two music festivals encapsulate MICA’s mission—which is to create an open space where people can make new friends, meet old friends and have conversations on how to make the community a better place.
“From the very beginning, these two festivals show people that Old Town is a fun and safe place to live and work,” says Terry, a longtime Old Town resident and business owner. “In fact, after the very first JazzFest, someone bought a building here. These festivals rekindle the interest in urban living and show people what we can be.”
Both festivals run in late summer: JazzFest in early August, and BluesFest in mid-September. Both are free and open to the public. Savvy volunteers leverage small grants and donations to book affordable acts from national, regional and local levels. Mose Allison, Rodney Whitaker, Stanley Jordan and Nicole Mitchell have graced jazz lineups, while blues lovers may recognize names such as Junior Watson, Kenny Neil and Son Seals.
Attendees enjoy fully equipped stages, street dancing, ethnic food and beverage tents, and the opportunity to visit local businesses, galleries and restaurants. Other activities include musical workshops for children and river taxi rides.
Each year, the two festivals grow in size, scope and popularity. Annual posters become framed artwork in homes and businesses. People come back and tell others. Restaurants and stores gain new and repeat patrons. Arts organizations take notice, as evidenced by the recent grant afforded JazzFest by the National Endowment for the Arts: Challenge America Fast-track Program. The effect on the Old Town community has been significant and visible.
“We’re looked at as a model of how the arts can impact economic development,” says Terry. “It’s taken lots of elbow grease, and lots of support from public and private investors. There’s a perseverance factor at work here, and it clearly shows people that downtown is cool and the place to be.”
For about a decade, the Old Town Commercial Association has united a diverse group of businesses, residents, property owners and other community members in the continued growth and restoration of Lansing’s Old Town.
As a Michigan Main Street community, the OTCA focuses on activities and fundraisers to improve neighborhood aesthetics, and to recruit and retain businesses to this arts and cultural district. Among those activities are a growing list of special events and festivals, many of which are fundraisers.
“Our festivals and events are the way we draw people to this unique community,” says Louise Gradwohl, of OTCA. “We work to make each and every one the best experience possible because it’s the first experience a lot of people have with Old Town.”
Festivals span the seasons. Event goers can warm up in April with organized, informal tours of area restaurants and urban lofts. Summer heats up with festivals that celebrate city tourism, artistic expression, the solstice, cultural heritage and lifestyle, and theater. In the fall, visitors can enjoy a variety of festivals based on traditional harvests and holidays.
In addition to mainstay events like Chalk Fest, Scrap Fest, the Festivals of the Sun and Moon, the Turner Street and Renegade Theater festivals, and Oktoberfest, the OTCA coordinates seasonal farmers’ markets, community cleanups and other smaller events around the holidays.
Last year, more than 900 volunteers put in about 6,000 hours among the dozens of festivals and events. About 20 active sponsors donated goods and services, and provided financial support. Estimates are that about 16,000 people attend an OTCA festival or event in a given year, with many making Old Town a destination throughout the year.
Gradwohl says she’s cribbed a phrase that’s become a new pitch for the Old Town experience. It came, she says, from a recent conversation with a local artist.
“He said he noticed how people now are always looking down to text, tweet or call,” she says. “We decided that when you’re down here, we want you to look at our texts and tweets, but also to look up and see the beauty of the buildings, your surroundings, all that Old Town has to offer.”