My naïveté was amusing.
As a reporter, I had covered several of these things. As a former party animal, I had lived large at the likes of Eeyore’s and Willie Nelson’s birthday parties in Austin, Texas. Even as a reasonably well-adjusted grown-up, I have enjoyed Corn Fest and the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. (Note to planners: change name to “PumpkinFest.”)
But nothing prepared me for the surrealism of a “Day Out with Thomas” on Sunday at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.
Briefly, Thomas is a cartoon, steam-driven locomotive who lives on the make-believe island of Sodor. Thomas and his friends, cohorts and enemies spring from the stories of the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, who wrote many of them 50 years ago. The stories have become books, toys, movies and so on.
Now, Thomas is a branded juggernaut who sucks up cash and gives back joy to young children (and 60-somethings sporting Thomas tats).
Anyway, I understand where part of my shock came from. My family had visited the railway museum previously because our son loves trains. The museum had impressed me as a rare tourist attraction: Something that nicely combined knowledge and fun at reasonable prices, with ample parking and – this is critical – without the crushing hordes of humanity.
I know how much kids like Thomas, but I thought that with the weather and the closing weekend of Corn Fest, the place would be pretty subdued.
But Aug. 17 to 19 and Aug. 25 and 26, more than 150,000 people (according to a train conductor I spoke with) braved hot and cool, dry and wet, to hang with a make-believe, powder blue train engine.
The experience got me to thinking more about festivals as economic engines, and about how our area is doing fairly well but could do better.
Between DeKalb and Sycamore, there’s Corn Fest (late August), the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival (late October), the Turning Back Time Car Show (late July), the Sycamore Steam Show & Threshing Bee (early August), and probably a couple of others I can’t recall.
Considering we’re talking about only two communities, that’s a pretty good base on which to build, so while it’s great to pursue economic development activities in manufacturing, transportation and logistics, I think DeKalb and Sycamore should collaborate to attract or create one or two more good-sized festivals, maybe something in early spring.
According to FairsAndFestivals.net, a website that tracks the business of festivals, “In a time when economic times are tough, one bright spot is craft shows, fairs and festivals.” The Craft Organization Directors Association estimates that local festivals bring in about $4 billion quarterly to U.S. communities.
Depending on the size and scope of the festival, however, substantial investments in security, sanitation, traffic control, etc., might be required, and these things cost money.
Which is the rub, because festivals require sponsorship to survive, and although there is potential payoff (in visibility and goodwill, if not currency), companies can be tough to persuade.
So, whatever festival(s) we go after or invent must be low maintenance, involve youth (5- through 20-year-olds), and be highly tweetable: The Nashville Tennessean reported in June that Twitter was “overwhelmingly the social media expression of choice” for fans at Nashville’s CMA Music Festival and Manchester, Tenn.’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
Also, it should be quirky and something not everyone else is doing.
Here’s your homework assignment: Google Riverside, Iowa, and see what out-of-the-box thinking did for that small town some years back.
• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org