Welcome to Festival Land (No Vacancy)

REGION – During the Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival last February, Comedian Ted Alexandro remarked on the sheer volume of festivals held in Traverse City each year: "You have, like, eight festivals this week. Even things I misheard turned out to be a festival: 'Oh, Folk Festival. I thought you said Fork Festival.'

"'Oh, no, we have that too. That's in June, though, when the new forks come out.'"

During his one-week visit, Alexandro observed what locals have been watching in wonderment for years: Up North's growing festival frenzy.

Think about it: Not too long ago, there was only one festival in Traverse City. "Other than the National Cherry Festival, there wasn't another thing going on," says Bryan Crough, executive director of TC's Downtown Development Authority. Today, he says, "We exceed most communities in the state of Michigan."

The sheer number might be a mark of distinction for the area but it's also making for some not-so-festive turf fights. Things got ugly this past December when Michael Moore cancelled his TC Comedy Arts Festival citing concerns (in the media and in several blistering letters to the public) about the close proximity and overlapping timing of another festival also to be held that weekend, the annual TC Winter Microbrew & Music Festival hosted by Porterhouse Productions.

Crough calls the highly publicized experience a "wake-up call," but says the problem of too many festivals is still a better one to have than too few festivals – or none at all.

Annually, the combined revenue generation of the top-grossing festivals in Traverse City alone, including the National Cherry Festival, the TC Film Festival, Comedy Arts Festival, and Summer and Winter Microbrew & Music Festivals, is well over $100 million.

So how did the North – and TC in particular – get to be such a festival hot stuff? Crough credits the people in the area that attract the diversity and volume of festivals to downtown each year. "The festivals occur because someone gets excited about doing something, and we have a unique collection of wonderful people who get the value of community and want to try things."

Here's a look at some of the area's biggest and best:

Horseshows by the Bay, a five-week long festival co-founded by Alexandra Rheinheimer in 2004, just seven years later has been named the best show in Zone Vof the United States Hunter/Jumper Association and on of the Top 25 in the continent according to the North American Riders Group. Today the festival spurs the local economy on average of $12 million annually and invites a flood of jet traffic through Cherry Capital Airport.

Asked what inspired her to launch a large equestrian festival in the Grand Traverse Region, Rheinheimer replied, "Traverse City's beautiful vacation destination landscape and ability to conduct big business is what ultimately captured us and our audience. We need amenities like an airport thatprovides commercial airlines & private jet service, big box stores, thousands of hotel rooms plus a quaint and luxurious outdoor setting to both produce the show and keep our customers happy and interested. We wouldn't be half as successful if any of these services lacked in size and quality."

A growing wine and foodie culture in Traverse City has attracted numerous food and wine related festivals throughout the region, including the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival, held annually at the Commons, and Paella in the Park and the Epicurean Classic, both held at locations downtown. Throughout the year on the Leelanau Peninsula, the Leelanau Peninsula Wine & Food Festival, the Leland Wine & Food Festival and Taste the Passion, a winter event sponsored by the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association.

TC Wine & Art Festival organizer Andrew McFarlane said the festivals promote the varied resources and artisans of the area. "One of the primary goals for the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival is to promote the region's wine industry," said McFarlane. "Talking about the festival and the diversity of wines and wineries participating is a great way to get the word about our maturing wine region to a much wider audience."

The Microbrew & Music festivals hosted by Porterhouse Productions and held in the summer and winter annually are today being joined by smaller events to compliment the region's growing population of breweries. This past September, Short's Brewing Company partnered with Pearls New Orleans Kitchen in Elk Rapids for the inaugural Bluegrass, Bourbon, Blues & Beer Festival and area resorts like Crystal Mountain in Benzie and Shanty Creek in Antrim, are host to their beer festivals each winter.

Viticulture and the introduction of hops crops joins a long history of regional celebrations with a focus on area agriculture. The largest of these is the well-established National Cherry Festival. The festival, which began as a Blessing of the Blossoms in the 1920s, today attracts more than 500,000 people to the area during the week-long event. With 2010 surveys concluding the average festival-goer spends $192 during their stay in Traverse City, the Cherry Festival represents the greatest economic impact on our regional economy, approaching $96 million in area revenue generated annually.

The smaller Empire Asparagus Festival held each May on the Leelanau, celebrates Michigan's ranking as one of the world's top asparagus producers. While small in comparison, the three-day event attracts thousands.

With the launch of the first Traverse City Film Festival in 2005, a new industry was attracted to the region. While there is not yet any specific data on whether or not the festival has impacted the number of films being produced locally, northern Michigan is slowly gaining a reputation as a haven for filmmakers.

The TCFF is host to approximately 100,000 visitors, who spend an estimated $6.5 million locally each July while taking in documentary, indie, and feature films at multiple venues downtown. Other smaller festivals have followed TCFF including the Frankfort Film Festival held each October at the Garden Theatre in Benzie County.

The region, also known for its system of scenic trails, bays and waterways plays host to bike and maritime related festivals including the Third Coast Bike Festival, Harbor Days, and the Schooner Festival.

In Kalkaska County, the National Trout Festival, one of the regions oldest festivals, celebrates the area's natural resources, trout fishing and sportsmanship. Benzie celebrates fish too with another older festival marking the introduction of the Coho Salmon into the Platte River in the 1960s, the National Coho Festival is held at the end of August each year.

In addition to food, film and fish, the Petoskey Stone Festival held each May showcases one of our regions most unique features and our state stone, along with items and jewelry made from the fossil. Complimenting this artistry is the Fiber Arts Festival held at Castle Farms in Charlevoix each year and host to numerous fiber artists and their wares. These craft festivals do not account for the large number of craft and art shows, fairs and sport-related events held throughout the region all year long.

Today, there's a multitude of festivals hosted throughout the year (enough to fill every weekend of the calendar) with the greatest concentration occurring during the summer months and the fewest in March and April. While there is still no single, all-encompassing calendar that may be used as a resource for festival organizers, TC residents don't seem to mind the attention.

Amy Tennis, who moved to the Grand Traverse Region from Grand Rapids, says she loves the number and variety of festivals held each year. "It is one of the many treasures I didn't know about before moving here. Every day is a celebration of some kind. Bring 'em on!"

Deb Lake, executive director for both the TC Film Festival and the Comedy Arts Festival says, despite the recent flap between her camp and that of Porterhouse Productions, "We don't think there are too many festivals." Remarking on the conflict surrounding the cancellation of the Comedy Arts Festival, she says, "There has to be a way to get everyone on the same page so that our area can benefit from many great events and festivals spread out to allow the local business community to get the biggest bang for the buck, particularly during the long winter months."

The DDA agrees. "These festivals have an immediate impact on local economies and just the motion of people through downtown," says Crough. And whether the people come here for festivals devoted to cherries, local brew, film, comedy or even asparagus, the fact remains: They're coming here. And that's always good for business. BN