Fort Smith festival and event success focus of UAFS alumni group panel discussion

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 162 views 

Fort Smith festival organizers who were part of events that created a potential $11 million economic impact for the city took part in a panel discussion Tuesday night (July 19) conducted by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) Alumni Office.

Participating panelists included John McIntosh of The Unexpected, Samantha Cole with Fort Smith Marathon, Cole Thornton with Peacemaker Arts and Music Festival, and Orval Smith with the Steel Horse Rally. The panel discussion was held at the Blue Lion in downtown Fort Smith.

The purpose of the event was to provide information about the different festivals and allow the audience to open a dialogue about what it takes to plan a festival, how to get involved, and what positive impacts a successfully organized festival can have on the city.

UAFS Alumni Director Rick Goins seized on this last point – the positive impact – immediately before panelists had a chance to answer any questions, informing the audience that a “guesstimate” of the four events represented by the panel had generated an economic impact of between $10 million and $11 million over the last year, despite each being in their infancy.

From this impact, three of the four events made donations totaling $70,000 to local charities and the city’s trails system.

Beyond the numbers, each festival organizer had a chance to field questions that emphasized their purpose, challenges, and outlook as well as where they expect their respective events to go in the future. Highlights of the discussion are included below.

John McIntosh of The Unexpected downtown murals project was the first to take on a question from panel discussion leader Rham Cunningham, emphasizing the necessary “year-round” aspects of running a festival.

“It’s a year-round effort,” McIntosh said. “If you are not committed to that, please don’t start. This is not easy or for the faint of heart, but it is important.”

McIntosh said the Unexpected has a long-term positive impact on the community, on other festivals and the Fort Smith economy because it creates “something disruptive and progressive” and lasts well beyond the 10 days that are set aside for it.

“Our efforts create something that lasts year-round,” McIntosh said. “We end up with public art that we didn’t have before, and a progressive conversation, which not everyone likes, but we have it. What you don’t see from it is that there are millions looking at Fort Smith as a progressive city from around the world.”

To prove that point, McIntosh shared that views on social media for the Unexpected murals project are now at 4 million and that “15,000 to 20,000 more people are seeing Fort Smith as a progressive city each week.”

“Hopefully, we’ve helped create a positive attitude about what is happening in our city here,” he added. “Keep in mind, all of these things – the Unexpected, the Marathon, the Motorcycle and Music Festivals – have occurred in the last two years or so.”

For this year’s Unexpected event, McIntosh was not ready to announce participating artists and buildings, but said the public should get ready for an announcement sometime in early August for the event which will run from Sept. 2 through Sept. 11.

As the youngest of the participating festivals in Fort Smith, the Peacemaker has had to overcome the typical startup challenges – i.e. acquisition of funds, securement of talent, and getting the public to notice. But organizer Cole Thornton and his team have impressed, securing the nationally renowned Cold War Kids, Turnpike Troubadours and Leon Russell for this year’s event – the second annual.

Unfortunately, Thornton announced that Russell recently had a heart attack and will not be able to attend this year’s event as advertised.

“We’re trying to fill that spot, and it’s going to be difficult to do so with someone comparable,” he said.

When securing widely known acts like Russell and the Cold War Kids, Thornton said the “bands are really expensive” and the greatest financial challenge, but he was encouraged by the community’s support.

“This year we’ve been able to raise a little over $250,000 thanks to in-kind sponsorships with media, and a lot of great local businesses supporting us.”

“We’ve also learned that it’s very valuable to presell tickets. Last year we didn’t have a whole lot of presell tickets, though we had a lot of people buying at the door. This year we’ve about doubled our presell tickets,” Thornton said.

The Peacemaker Music and Arts Festival will be held on July 29 and 30 from downtown Fort Smith.

Fort Smith Marathon Race Director Samantha Cole said one of the biggest challenges for the growing Mercy-sponsored event is also one of its greatest strengths – securing volunteers.

“Without volunteers, what we do really wouldn’t be possible,” Cole told the Blue Lion audience, adding that more than 400 volunteers stood alongside police officers last year to help keep runners safe, particularly through high traffic parts of the race, such as crossing Rogers Avenue intersections.

For people wanting to get involved but not willing to run, Cole said that “really all we need is their time.”

“We just ask that if your house is near the marathon route, stand outside and yell ‘good luck’ or ‘way to go’ to the runners, set up a manned water station. Get out there and encourage those people because 26.2 miles is a long way to run.”

As for how Fort Smith Marathon participates with charities within the city, Cole said interest in developing the trails system caught Mercy’s attention because more trails encouraged a more healthy lifestyle.

“We would much rather have you healthy than in the hospital, so when we started looking at doing the marathon, we thought, ‘what a great way to help.'”

Also a focal point of Tuesday night’s discussion was the Steel Horse Rally, which just wrapped up its second annual event this spring. While not intended to be competition with Northwest Arkansas’s Bikes, Blues & BBQ Rally, it was clear from representative Orval Smith’s comments that Steel Horse had aggressive growth in mind.

After McIntosh referred to a 2013 analysis that showed the impact that year on NWA ranged from $69.411 million to $80.98 million with event attendance between 348,000 and 478,000, Smith shared his interactions with representatives from the Bikes, Blues & BBQ event regarding this year’s Steel Horse.

“The first five years of Bikes Blues & BBQ – the very first year, it was a poker run, and there was estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people,” Smith said. “This year, the official police guesstimation (for the Steel Horse Rally) was 35,000 to 40,000 people, and the people from Bikes, Blues & BBQ who were here watching it, said, ‘we didn’t get that big until our fifth or sixth year.'”

Concerning the process by which Steel Horse Rally organizers pick charities, Smith referred interested organizations to the Steel Horse website for more details on the application process and said that the plan moving forward is to “limit the number of charities we participate in, so we can give more to the ones we choose to support.”

“And of course, that may change each year, but we want to be able to increase the amount rather than give $1,000 here and $1,000 there,” he added.

In the first two years, Steel Horse gave to four and five area charities, respectively, and produced a combined economic impact of $12.5 million ($4.2 million in year one, $8.3 million in year two).

The next rally is scheduled for May 5 and 6, 2017.