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Future of festival deserves thought

By By BILL CRIST – Publisher
Brewton's population more than doubled yesterday, as thousands of visitors were in town for the 23rd annual Blueberry Festival. Each June the festival features over 200 exhibitors and entertainers, and has a positive economic impact in the form of local sales taxes generated at the festival, as well as increased sales at local convenience stores, retail shops, restaurants and hotels.
Since its inception in 1980, the festival has been held on the campus of Jefferson Davis Community College. The school's spacious and tree-covered property has been a popular spot, winning praises from vendors and visitors alike. Over the years, the actual operation of the Festival has moved from a couple of civic groups who organized the first several events, to the Greater Brewton Area Chamber of Commerce. Chamber staff and members of the board of directors do much of the organizing and troubleshooting at the Festival.
And while it may seem a bit early to start planning next year's event, that's just what this community ought to be doing today, and in the coming weeks. Over the past several years, different ideas about which direction to take the Blueberry Festival have been made public. Many people would like to see things stay the way they are now, with only minor changes to make things run more smoothly. Others would like to see the Festival move to another location, with Downtown Brewton at the center of many of those suggestions. And without a doubt, there are other locations and ideas that have not been discussed.
While valid arguments can be made for each option, as a community, we need to remember a couple of things. First and foremost, not everyone is going to be happy with any decision that's made. Secondly, a change of location will not be the sole answer to increasing the amount of time and money that visitors spend in Brewton. But like anything that has remained largely unchanged for a number of years, an objective analysis of the situation and possible alternatives is needed to make sure that the Blueberry Festival continues to be an economic asset rather than liability for our community.
One of the great myths in retail sales is that "if we're open, they will come." That may have worked with a baseball field in the movie "A Field of Dreams," but it does not work in the real world. Customers are creatures of habit, and will visit places they know to be open, and avoid those that experience has told them are closed. Customers seek stores that are having sales or offer other incentives designed to attract their business. Successful retailers know this, practice it and make a lot of money doing so.
Moving the Festival downtown could help the merchants located on the Boardwalk and on Belleville Ave. A downtown event brings much more visibility to itself and Brewton, but there are questions that must be answered. Questions about traffic flow, hours of operation, parking and event location remain to be answered. Those answers will have a direct impact on whether or not the retail stores in Brewton would benefit or suffer following a move.
In the coming weeks and months, the Chamber's board of directors will be seeking public input on the Festival. Many groups are slow to adopt change, and our local chamber is no different. And although we are not alone in our resistance to new ideas, there is a window of opportunity that has presented itself. Interest in the downtown area is as strong as it's been in many years, and moving needs to be considered carefully. Perhaps it will turn out that keeping it at the college is in the community's best interest. Perhaps it would be best moved to another area of town.
Whatever the decision, chamber members and concerned citizens need to make their opinions heard. The Blueberry Festival has been very good for Brewton for 23 years. With proper planning and thought, it can grow even larger, bringing more visitors and recognition to Brewton. Regardless of location, that's a good thing.
be contacted via email at bill.crist@brewtonstandard.com