Folk fest visits up, donations steady

Posted Aug. 25, 2008, at 9:48 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:18 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — As volunteers and a crew from the Charleston Correctional Facility were working Monday to take down the stages and tents that were part of the 2008 American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, organizers were looking up — at rising attendance figures.

Folk festival executive director Heather McCarthy said crowd numbers will likely exceed attendance from 2007, when there were around 165,000 visits to the three-day event along the Penobscot River.

There are no turnstiles — the festival is and has been free since it first arrived in Bangor in 2002 as the National Folk Festival — so more exact numbers are not logged. McCarthy said figures are the result of surveys of parking density and the number of people at the different stages. Calculations are done by officials from the National Council for the Traditional Arts who are experienced in counting crowds at similar events.

The 165,000 figure does not represent individual people but rather visits, which means if one individual attended the festival each of its three days, that one person is counted as three visits.

People also seemed to be staying longer than in previous years, McCarthy added.

“It indicates the audience is becoming more vested in the event, scheduling their stay, going to certain acts, planning their visit,” she said.

Festival officials like to see a slow rise in attendance rather than a quick spike, McCarthy added, so that they’re prepared with enough food vendors, restroom facilities and shuttle buses.

Preliminary numbers indicate cash donations to the folk festival were at the same level as 2007, when crowds tossed $94,786 into buckets that volunteers carried around the grounds of the festival. That came to an average of 57 cents per person.

As of Monday McCarthy estimated the festival had received $92,000 in cash, although organizers hadn’t finished counting coins.

The final number will probably fall short of the $100,000 cash goal that festival organizers set, but McCarthy was pleased with the initial numbers.

“We would love at some point in the future for an average of $5 per person, which along with corporate sponsorships would probably pay for the festival. It’s really hard to look at $92,000 and be disappointed. It’s huge for us. We’re going to continue to get the message out that it costs around $1 million to pay for the festival and we need support from individuals, too.”

One number that McCarthy is certain went up this year was the amount of walk-in volunteers. So many offered to help that the festival ran out of 2008 volunteer shirts and had to go back to shirts from three years ago to outfit everyone.

Another weekend of good weather likely boosted turnout for visitors and volunteers. The days may have been a little hot and the nights a little cool, and Sunday morning may have been somewhat overcast, but there were no signs of rain all weekend.

Good weather, in fact, has been the standard since 2002, and probably one of the reasons the festival continues to be a popular late-summer attraction, according to Julia Olin, the NCTA executive director, who visits Bangor each year for the festival.

Olin said that during the planning stages for the National Folk Festival more than seven years ago, the NCTA actually researched several decades’ worth of weather reports to determine a good weekend for the festival to be held. June was ruled out, for example, because of black fly season.

“We’ve had seven years of good weather. Even in the years when there was some precipitation, it would rain at night or it would not start to rain until the last set of the day,” she said. “In terms of really establishing this event, it’s been tremendous.”

The weather, along with what Olin described as a strong board of directors, has helped establish the American Folk Festival’s reputation as a model for the transition from the National Folk Festival, which rotates sites every few years, to the American, which is Bangor’s effort to keep a festival running.

“Things go so smoothly now that people start to worry because nothing is wrong,” Olin said. “They get nervous, like the other shoe’s going to drop. But it never does. It just gets easier and easier.”

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