Local festivals build community, economy

WARDSBORO — Events that celebrate a unique quirk of a town - like the Gilfeather Turnip Festival - might look like frivolity on the surface.

But Paul Costello said that these community events serve a larger purpose.

Events and festivals help bring community members together for something fun that celebrates the town, said Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

But they also help build the town's identity, he said.

Such events also attract people to the community who might not otherwise visit, he added.

A community needs spaces that allow its members to interact and build connections, he said. These relationships and conversations help people feel that “the community is making progress” and remaining vital.

As an example of the power of events, Costello pointed to the experience of Johnson, a town of 3,600 in Lamoille County that had worked with the VCRD.

During a six-month planning process, residents noted that they loved their community but that it felt “broken up.” Many local organizations - the American Legion, the elementary school, the local college, the local arts center -all had strong communities around them but those communities felt siloed and never interacted with one another, said community members.

“They had bubbles of community,” said Costello. This resulted in whole sections of the community not knowing other whole sections, he said.

So, to pop the bubbles, people in Johnson formed a task force with representatives from each community sector.

This group went on to create a Thursday night community party. Each group took charge of a different night, said Costello. All members of the task force sent out invitations to their respective networks.

What resulted was a “full-scale community event,” he said.

Community members reported that they loved the mix of people who attended each Thursday night performance, Costello added.

He said that often community events go through stages, depending on the nature of the volunteers.

For example, long-running events sometimes face dying out because no one steps up to replace volunteers who retire. In Costello's experience, this often happens because of a lack of communication. Potential volunteers often don't step up because they think the older volunteers “don't want us,” while older volunteers are asking, “Why is no one coming to help?”

It's important to communicate that new volunteers are welcome - as are their new ideas, which could refresh the event, he advises.

Events connect with economic development

Costello also pointed to events and their role in economic development.

To maintain or attract businesses, communities need the infrastructure to support them such as water and sewer or broadband.

But to keep or attract the people who operate and work at businesses, communities also need a healthy quality of life. This includes a vibrant downtown, cultural events, and dynamic schools - and, yes, community events, he added.

“These things make a community a nicer place to live,” he said.

To highlight the connection between festivals and economic development, Costello pointed to Rutland.

In the warmer months, the city offers Friday Night Live, a free concert series in the downtown, he said. Merchants found that they did as much business on those evenings as they had done for the prior two weeks.

What makes an event or festival successful?

He noted that the most successful events are the ones where volunteers have as much fun organizing and putting on the event as those who attend it.

But ultimately, Costello said, the answer to that question depends on the community.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates