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0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

Why Big Festivals Left Arcadia Creek Festival Site

A photo from Ribfest 2015. Ribfest and Blues Fest still take place at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place.
Kayla Kiley

At a glance, it looks as though Kalamazoo’s festivals are leaving Arcadia Creek Festival site in droves. Over the past two years, Irish Fest moved to Old Dog Tavern. Island Fest moved to Mayor’s Riverfront Park. Taste of Kalamazoo is on hiatus. Greek Fest used to offer days of food and music. Now it will be a sit down dinner for just a thousand people. All of these festivals took place at Arcadia Creek Festival site downtown. 

Standing in front of the Arcadia Creek Festival Place, it’s hard to believe this used to be a parking lot. Thirty years ago, Wayne Deering helped found Taste of Kalamazoo in another lot just across the street.

“And the three restaurateurs were myself - I had Chaps on Main, and Theo Skartsiaris had Dionysus, and we had Oakley’s there,” he says.

When the early Kalamazoo festivals outgrew the lot, the city built Arcadia Creek Festival Place in 2004. But now, more than a decade later, most of the large festivals have left.

They all had multiple reasons for leaving Arcadia Creek, but cost was one problem they had in common. Wayne Deering’s daughter, Emily, organizes Island Fest.

“I think it says something about the model when you have to have lines around the corner in order two nights in a row in order to break even,” she says.

"We have all kinds of events using it, not just these four or five or six large events. We've had weddings there, we've had parties, we've had people renting it for all kinds of things. And it's a gathering place."

As far as three-day festivals go, Arcadia is almost 50 percent higher than other city venues in rental fees, application fees, and deposits. (Correction: The original story stated Arcadia is a third higher.) But add in the post-event fees - things like power washing the street and renting the old parking lot - and Arcadia Creek is at least $1,700 more.

Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated oversees the festival place. Officials at DKI say the site may be more costly, but it’s a good location with a lot to offer. President Steve Deisler is also quick to point out that DKI isn’t making a profit off of the site.

“We’re not there to make money, we’re there to make sure the site is maintained and that the cost for maintaining it is covered annually,” he says.

DKI marketing and engagement manager Sue Huggett says the festival site is more of a marketing tool - to help bring people downtown and patronize the businesses there. Deisler says DKI has only raised rates twice since the festival site was built.

Sean Fletcher is with the City of Kalamazoo’s Parks and Recreation Department. He’s also the new chair of DKI’s branding and engagement committee, which works with the Arcadia site.

“The expenses you’re going to have for fencing and other logistics [at sites other than Arcadia]- you know, porta johns and things like that. Even at venues other than Bronson Park, it’s going to even itself out once you start to add the things that the festival site already has,” says Fletcher.

Betty Peristeridis, organizer of Greek Fest, disagrees. She says the only things that come free at the festival site are the stage and some minimal lighting. Organizers still have to pay for things like porta johns no matter what venue they choose.

Wayne Deering says Island Fest got tired of the restrictions and fees at the site. He remembers the time when DKI made him pay for damaged day lilies:

“So they were matted down and there’s no doubt. They sent us a picture and they were matted down, but the flowers were still there and everything, they were going to be ok. But without giving us any kind of opportunity to correct that situation, they just tore them all out and replaced them and sent us a $1,700 bill.”

Sue Huggett says actually it was a little over $2,000 for the 135 lilies damaged. DKI also had to replace sod, mulch, and some cement after that festival to get the site ready for another event.

Deering says two years ago, DKI upped the noise restrictions at the festival place. It made curfew an hour earlier for all events, which Deering says likely hurt just about every festival at Arcadia. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that DKI put the Deerings on probation because they didn’t pay their post-event bill for Taste of Kalamazoo on time.

No matter who you ask, the cost of the Arcadia Creek Festival Place is only part of the story. For the festivals bringing in big name musical acts like Greek Fest and Taste of Kalamazoo - entertainment costs became too much to handle.  

“Thanks to the casinos, the cost of even your 80s and 90s bands have skyrocketed. For example, a band like Rick Springfield is asking for $85,000. That’s a lot of money on a prayer that the weather will work in your favor of course and that people will want to see that choice of entertainment,” says Betty Peristeridis of Greek Fest.

Peristeridis says that meant less money for their charitable nonprofits. Plus, she adds, the event was supposed to be about Greek culture, not the big name entertainment.

While most festivals were competing for the best headliners, Irish Fest was not. Organizer Brian Abbott says the event couldn’t bring enough people in because they didn’t offer music that appealed to a wide audience.

“We were never putting out big nationally recognized headlining acts the way that some of the other festivals were doing. We weren’t going to draw in that crowd. We weren’t going to do something…all of our acts were specifically Irish acts and still are Irish acts,” says Abbott.

Steve Deisler of DKI says if a festival wasn’t making enough money, organizers could have raised ticket prices to offset costs. But Abbott says that wouldn’t have made Irish Fest competitive with other festivals and events downtown.

“We have to consider what are people going to be willing to pay and what are people going to be willing to pay specifically for what we’re offering,” he says.

Wayne Deering says Kalamazoo’s downtown has grown in the past decade. There are more venues for music now and people have more places to go outside of the big festivals.

Sean Fletcher of Kalamazoo Parks and Rec says maybe leaving Arcadia is the best way to keep these long-running festivals from getting stale.

“You add things to it, you enhance it, you do everything you can to keep the numbers up. And at some point you get - with some events - you have to make some changes,” he says.

Since the four big festivals left, Sue Huggett says DKI has had to rethink its strategy.

“Up until this year - from what I understand - they haven’t had to go out and actually actively market the site. It’s always been full. People have always knocked on our door and called,” she says.

The one-day music festival Audiotree will host its event there in August and Huggett says DKI has lined up another music festival for the fall. She says DKI is working with the city’s Parks and Recreation department to streamline the application process and their manual - which is now more than 40 pages long.

DKI’s Steve Deisler says the Arcadia Creek Festival site may have been built as a festival place, but now it’s more than that. There’s a playground and picnic areas for families.

“We have all kinds of events using it, not just these four or five or six large events. We’ve had weddings there, we’ve had parties, we’ve had people renting it for all kinds of things. And it’s a gathering place,” says Deisler.

This year’s Ribfest is still on at Arcadia Creek Festival Place, August 4th through 6th. 

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Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.
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