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Grading the 2014 National Cherry Festival
Grading the 2014 National Cherry Festival

2,100 volunteers. $2.3 million in revenue. An estimated 500,000 visitors in one weekend.

The numbers from this year's National Cherry Festival (NCF) were record-breaking – reflecting the success of an event that, in its 88th year, continues to defy expectations. But with that outsized performance come increasing standards. Here's how key stakeholders are grading this year's event.

Fifty-five users took advantage of the city's new online event feedback form to share concerns with city leaders on this year's NCF. Chief among their complaints: that the event generated “too much trash,” drew “too much of a crowd,” was “too long,” and had “too little police and/or security enforcement” on-site.

Trash was a particularly sensitive issue for residents this year, as photos showing a garbage-strewn West End beach following the Fourth of July went viral on social media. “Where have people's consciences gone?” demanded one resident on Traverse City Trash Troubles, a Facebook page that documented the waste issues.

But not all local response was negative. Blue Angels and fireworks photos also went viral, and early response rates to a large-scale community survey now underway show “very high satisfaction ratings, in the 90th to 95th percentile” among attendees, according to NCF Executive Director Trevor Tkach (the final results of that survey will be released in a few weeks).

City Commissioners/Staff
A majority of Traverse City's seven commissioners surveyed by The Ticker had an overall positive impression of this year's event.

“It's good to see the increased energy in the city,” says Commissioner Gary Howe, while Mayor Michael Estes believes the NCF provided “great entertainment for locals and visitors alike.” Commissioner Tim Werner agrees the event “went well,” while Commissioner Jeanine Easterday adds “my general impressions were that people were having a lot of fun.”

Commissioners did share concerns about the length, timing and scope of the event. “I would like to see the festival shortened to three to five days and focused on the cherry industry, really showcasing the region...not all the big national, commercial enterprises,” says Commissioner Barbara Budros.

Commissioner Jim Carruthers agrees “a shorter festival is needed,” and says NCF “should be moved back a few weeks.”

Commissioner Ross Richardson adds that “folks miss the Heritage Parade and wish the festival itself was more locally-oriented,” and that he's “heard from many (residents) that they would like the July Fourth holiday to be separate from the festival.”

Among city staff, Code Enforcement Officer Michael Trombley reports that festival set-up and overall operations went “smoothly," though he recommends adding more bike racks and trash receptacles next year. Trombley also observed that Union Street between Front Street and the Parkway was “a mess” during the event, generating numerous complaints.

A debriefing memo from City Clerk Benjamin Marentette states that “this year's event was run tremendously well” and that “no alarming issues” arose. Marentette did provide recommendations for increased trash clean-up, improved bathroom facilities and better parking signage in 2015, as well as steps to create a more “safe-feeling” environment on Union Street.

Cherry Festival Leadership
Ahead of an expected September commission review of NCF, Tkach is analyzing what went well  – and preparing for possible critiques. In response to commissioner comments the festival is not “local” enough, Tkach points to this year's record volunteer turnout as an indicator of community support and notes the festival is “steeped in local tradition and heritage.”

Moving the festival later in July to better align with cherry harvest season would mean “moving the Traverse City Film Festival” and also possibly “running over” other regional events like Elk Rapids' Harbor Days and Charlevoix's Venetian Festival, says Tkach. He notes the NCF set dates through 2016 at the city's request – dates the city signed off on – and that sponsor and entertainment planning are integrally tied to those schedules.

One area Tkach does acknowledge the festival could concede on is reducing set-up or tear-down time, though he defends the length of the event itself. “Based on our financial model, we have to raise as much money as possible during those eight days or we're going to have to cut free programming,” he says. “But is cutting set-up or tear-down time doable? It'll cost more...but yes.”

Tkach says NCF is also working with local vendors to possibly reduce their fees, and incorporating city staff recommendations on trash and other issues to create an “even better” event next year.


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