Events make up the fabric of a town, Lake County community leaders say
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Events make up the fabric of a town, Lake County community leaders say

Aug 15, 2023

Annual events and festivals are important to the fabric of a community, creating enjoyment for residents, as well as bolstering economic development.

That’s the consensus of some community government leaders surveyed by News-Herald reporters. Here’s more of what they had to say:

Village Mayor Timothy Manross said annual festivals and public celebrations in Fairport Harbor are a reflection of the town’s shared history and traditions.

“They build community spirit and pride,” he said.

These events also provide an opportunity to “welcome home family and friends to reminisce and share our wonderful village with them,” the mayor added.

“Fairport Mardi Gras is the best example, as family members who have moved states away continue to come back with their families year after year to celebrate what they experienced as children,” he said.

Traditionally, Fairport Mardi Gras is held around Fourth of July weekend and lasts five days. The event features a parade, games and other fun activities, food and entertainment.

However, Mardi Gras was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of risks and complications created by the lingering novel coronavirus pandemic. After a two-year hiatus, Mardi Gras took place in 2022, with a four-day schedule.

Manross said the mood during 2022 Mardi Gras was festive. Although a steady rain was falling throughout the opening-night parade, the procession still drew a good crowd of spectators, the mayor said.

“This year’s parade would have been a washout due to the rain in any other year,” he said. “I just could not believe the people who stayed on the route to celebrate its return.”

One of Fairport Harbor’s newer festivals is Village Fest, which takes place in late August. The event, which began in 2019, strives to attract people to the village’s downtown for entertainment, food and shopping.

“Village Fest continues to grow and our storefront businesses really like that we are focused on the business district,” Manross said.

In 2021, the nonprofit Fairport Harbor Arts & Culture Alliance began sponsoring a summertime Live @ the Lighthouse Music Festival Series. The event takes place outdoors at the Lighthouse Amphitheater, which is just north of the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum and Lighthouse at 129 Second St.

“Live @ the Lighthouse has been a great success,” Manross said. “The crowds that are coming into the village are respectful of our community and spending money.”

Many concert spectators, after visiting Fairport Harbor for the first time, are coming back, the mayor added.

“We had a couple that got married at one of the concerts and have since bought a home here,” he said.

Some of Mentor’s popular festivals and other community gatherings include Mentor CityFest, the Mentor Rocks concert series and Headlands BeachFest.

Overall, Mentor events attracted more than 100,000 people in 2022, said Ante Logarusic, the city’s communications officer.

“Most people who attend these events are from the area, but some travel from outside the area as well,” Logarusic said.

When visitors from more distant places attend Mentor festivals and community celebrations, they help to strengthen the area’s economy, he noted.

“Whether they buy a meal from a vendor or from a nearby restaurant, there is definitely a positive economic impact,” he said. “When marketing these events to those outside the area, we encourage visitors to ‘make a day of it’ by visiting attractions in Mentor like the James A. Garfield National Historic Site and the Mentor Marsh, as well as other Lake County attractions. And while they’re here, be sure to grab a bite from a local eatery.”

In 2022, the Mentor Rocks concert series attracted music lovers to the city’s Amphitheater Main Stage from early June through late August. Mentor Rocks, which charges no admission, features a lineup of national recording artists as well as highly regarded tribute bands.

“This year, crowds were strong from the first show through the last with an overall attendance of 76,000 over 13 weeks,” Logarusic said.

A Mentor festival that returned in 2021 after a two-year absence was Headlands BeachFest.

The event was canceled in 2019 because of heavy rains that caused flooding in portions of Headlands Beach State Park. Then in 2020, it was called off because of health and safety risks posed by the pandemic.

Held on Ohio’s longest beach, Headlands BeachFest features world-champion sand-sculpture artists who build creations during the event; entertainment; hands-on activities; food trucks; and arts and crafts vendors.

“Headlands BeachFest is a unique event that generates a lot of regional interest,” Logarusic said. “Visitors have attended from as far as western New York and eastern Michigan.”

However, the turnout at Headlands BeachFest is highly influenced weather, he noted.

“A day at the beach isn’t much fun if it’s cold and rainy,” Logarusic said. “The past two years have been on the chilly side, but 11,000 people attended in 2022 compared to 4,500 that attended in 2021.”

Mayor Joe Sakacs has been a big proponent of community events this past summer in Wickliffe, said city Recreation Director Tim Stopp.

“(Sakacs) loves community, so he really wants the community to come together for events and festivals, have a good time and have camaraderie throughout the whole city,” Stopp said. “It really was a bounce-back summer from previous summers of (the coronavirus).”

This year, the Wickliffe Public Library joined the city and the Wickliffe City School District to become the first community in Lake County and Northeast Ohio to join Values-in-Action’s Kindland movement, a regional subset of its national Just Be Kind campaign. Sakacs kicked off the campaign after the Memorial Day Parade at City Hall.

“We had food trucks, so all the parade participants could get something to eat,” Stopp said. “It worked really well to start the summer off.”

Movies in the park, which were free and open to the public, continued this summer.

“We had pre-movie activities and food trucks at those events,” Stopp said. “The mayor and council were committed to having all our aquatic amenities open and we had poolside movies — new this summer. We had three concerts in the park at our community senior center. During one of those, we threw in a car show and we had 130-plus cars on display.”

In addition to the concerts at the senior center, two concerts took place at Coulby Mansion, one of which was Rock the Mansion, hosted by Wickliffe Forever.

Paul DiCicco - For The News-Herald

The crowd enjoys Rock the Mansion in 2019. (File)

Rock the Mansion, hosted by Wickliffe Forever, took place Sept. 10 at Coulby Mansion. (Submitted)

“Ultimately, his (Sakacs) goal is to have some type of amphitheater, the latest rage,” Stopp said. “We did have a kick-off concert to that concept behind City Hall and he’s going to expand that to a concert series next summer.”

Over the years, Willoughby’s events have become signature family experiences for the region to enjoy, drawing thousands of people from Northeast Ohio, said Economic Development Director Tom Thielman.

“We have been working to establish Willoughby as an arts, cultural, retail and culinary experience,” he said. “In order to do this, we have to have great events, stores and restaurants to visit.”

2022 was Willoughby’s first year when it had some semblance of normality in light of the pandemic, Thielman said. The rib burn off came back a little smaller, but it was still a success.

Kristi Garabrandt - The News-Herald

Nick Rozsnaki cooks ribs for Smokin' T's during the 8th Annual Red, White and BBQ Rib Burn Off in downtown Willoughby on May 18.

“We saw a great crowd,” Thielman said. “We had to change some things around and create new events. We started to do a Santa parade instead of having Santa at Wes Point Park in a house. We’ve kept that going.”

During the parade, Santa goes up and down the streets in Willoughby. Nonperishable food is collected to be donated to food pantries.

“It’s a huge success,” said Parks and Recreation Director Judean Keller. “You’ll see kids throwing snowballs if it’s snowing. We notice a lot of adults looking out their windows and as soon as they see Santa, it puts a smile on their face. It brings back childhood memories for them.”

Willoughby’s holiday lighting ceremony, scheduled for Dec. 1, attracts thousands, Thielman said.

“That’s another event that resonates with young and old,” he said. “The lighting is a great way to launch the holiday season in our community.”

Last summer, Keller started a more robust version of the Osborne Park summer concert series, adding pop-up shops and incorporating food trucks. More than 1,000 people were in attendance at each concert, Thielman said. While Willoughby’s events provide economic impact, they also serve as a way to market Willoughby to future residents.

“We’ve seen those results in our owner-occupied and rental real estate markets,” Thielman said. “We’re a desirable community and the primary ingredient of that is our local events.”

The city still has plans to continue with its four primary events — the Rib Burn Off, the Cruise-In, the Arts Fest and Last Stop Willoughby, as well as its summer concert series at the gazebo in Wes Point Park.

In 2022, Sarah Krisher, owner of Sarah Krisher Studio, participated in the Willoughby ArtsFest for the first time. (Marah Morrison -- The News-Herald)

“Our events and festivals have become traditions for many,” said Mayor Robert Fiala. “These attract visitors to our city, offering an economic boost, and showcase the assets our city has to offer, including the Chagrin River, Lake Erie and our historic downtown.”

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