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Life of the Party

When it needed it most, citycelebrations may have lassoed a star.


Shrinking, too, were attendance figures at two other citycelebrations events, the 3-year-old Midweek Mojo series held Wednesdays at the Canal Turning Basin and the inaugural Riverfront Outdoor Movies held Thursdays on Brown's Island. Citycelebrations' year ended with Legendary Santa at the Greater Richmond Convention Center losing his wallet to a thieving elf. An event billed as "Richmond's most beloved family holiday tradition" turned into handcuffs and jail time for the part-time elf, Darrick Colin McCray, who picked Santa's pocket and stole his Discover card.

A new year promised new hope. But on the dawn of citycelebrations' first event of 2005, Alferio made a 5 a.m. call that nearly dashed it. After days of heavy rain and a foreboding forecast, she chose to postpone Easter on Parade until the following Sunday, irking more than a few Fan residents.

The Monument Avenue event costs $30,000 to produce and is a favorite, drawing tens of thousands. It was advertised as taking place "rain or shine," to the dismay of those who showed up anyhow. At least one resident threatened to boycott the parade by flying a black flag outside his home. In an after-Easter column, Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Ray McAllister rebuked Alferio for seemingly having "moved around on a whim" Easter itself.

"It was a horrible, horrible time," Alferio recalls. "If it had rained, we would have been heroes." But with neither deluge nor drizzle at hand, citycelebrations instead appeared plain skittish.

In the meantime, both the Midweek Mojo and Riverfront Outdoor Movies series had been scrapped. Just last month, after two of its 16 scheduled Friday Cheers concerts had been held, citycelebrations switched venues from the bigger Brown's Island to the smaller American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar across the street. Alferio cites a spike of $32,000 in fees charged by Richmond Riverfront Corporation for use of the space as the reason for the move.

Six months into its 2005 season, citycelebrations has Easter on Parade and the River City Beer and Seafood Festival behind it. With the jury out on the success of a musical-chairs version of Friday Cheers — it likely will move again to 18th Street in August — only two of its trademark events remain, the Second Street Festival in Jackson Ward and Legendary Santa.

Alferio holds out hope for the remainder of the year. Last month the city agreed to restore — as it did for many other nonprofits — $540,000 to citycelebrations' $1 million budget. At the same time, the downtown party planners are preparing for their biggest gig yet: the 67th National Folk Festival, to be held downtown along the James this fall. The success of that event could make or break citycelebrations once and for all.

The free outdoor folk festival, Oct. 7-9, will feature a broad array of music and dance performances on multiple stages, regional and ethnic foods, parades, a folk art marketplace, children's activities and craft exhibits. What's more, the three-year contract awarded to the city by the National Council for the Traditional Arts projects annual crowds of more than 100,000 and a regional economic impact of $4 million to $7 million.

While winning the event and putting it on in Richmond — at a cost of $1.4 million — is the work of myriad local groups, Alferio says that its production falls under the "auspices" of citycelebrations and that ultimately it's up to her organization to see it succeed. Some say the folk festival's success — in terms of attendance — is nearly guaranteed because of the event's national caliber and long history.

There's another way citycelebrations factors in, says Richmond Renaissance Marketing Director Lucy Meade. "Festivals are an important part of the community, particularly in urban areas," she says. "As you begin to revitalize an area, festivals and events are what first bring people in."

Charles Peters, former director of the city's Department of Community Development and longtime board member of citycelebrations, says the nonprofit's role is as important as ever, especially in how it helps instill a sense of identity. "It's really always been about celebrating downtown living and all its diversity," he says. Yet he cautions, "What worked last year won't necessarily work next year. The challenge has always been to know where the community is."

Officials in Bangor, Maine, say the National Folk Festival helped grow their community beyond expectation. Bangor hosted the event from 2002 to 2004. In its first year, 85,000 people descended on the waterfront town of 35,000. Last year, its third and final year hosting the event, attendance swelled to 135,000.

Former Bangor City Councilman John Roman, who chaired the National Folk Festival during its Bangor tenure, says the event did more than cultivate tourism. "It reawakened an interest in the heart of Bangor and seeing opportunities along its waterfront," he says. "Now we're seeing restaurants there doing extremely well. Now our docks are filled where they once were empty, and there are 40 to 50 boats on the river."

But Bangor doesn't have an organization quite like citycelebrations. Instead, Roman says, municipal groups chipped in however they could to ensure the event ran smoothly. Now Bangor is gearing up for its own version of the gig, the American Folk Festival, Aug. 26-28. Roman says there's been even greater corporate and community support for the local effort. "Even though this is now Bangor's, it will look exactly like the National Folk Festival," he says.

Ever since Nina Abady founded Downtown Presents — the precursor to citycelebrations — in 1985, the organization has produced events mostly on its own, especially the "after-work dance parties," as Alferio calls the original Friday Cheers series at Festival Park. At the time, she notes, Cheers was the "only game in town." Today citycelebrations hinges its success on a collaboration of events — and now the star power of the National Folk Festival.

After Richmond's three-year stint hosting the event, citycelebrations will launch its own version. "Our goal is to make this a Richmond signature event, like [Louisville's] Kentucky Derby, like [Charleston's] Spoleto, like the Indianapolis 500."

Alferio attended last year's folk festival in Bangor. She calls her trip an epiphany. "It occurred to me that all the artists and participants were authentic," she says. "They weren't merely interpreting their crafts or the music; they were living it."

It's a culture she hopes the festival will bring to Richmond — and to citycelebrations. Meanwhile, Alferio continues to keep her pulse on the community. "Our relevancy is vital," she says. "And you have to be very dedicated to how it evolves." S

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