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What Happened To Rockford's Summer?

AirFest, On The Waterfront

The July 4th weekend is a reminder summer is in full swing. In Rockford, the season will have to go on without two major attractions.

For nearly 30 years, a wide-range of musicians made Rockford’s waterfront their Labor Day home.

But in December,  it was announced the popular On The Waterfrontfestival was no more.  Festival passes had dwindled in recent years, and costs were mounting.

Then Rockford AirFest organizershad to pull the plug on the popular show. The decision was due primarily to the effect of Federal Government sequestration cuts on the military and its support of air shows. It’s unclear whether the show will return next year.

Gordon Kaye is the Executive Director and General Manager of RAVE. That stands for the Rockford Area Venues & Entertainment Authority. The group manages the BMO Harris Bank Center and Davis Park Festival Grounds.

“I don’t want to minimize what those two events meant to this community, particularly AirFest, in terms of visitors," Kaye said. "They just kept building and building, and I think that this year would have been absolutely incredible.

"But just because those two things aren’t here any more doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. For anybody who says there’s nothing to do during the summers in Rockford, I think it’s because they are just not looking, ” he added.

He points to Rockford Aviators baseball, the Rockford Speedway, arena football and an upcoming gospel fest.

The recent Field of Blues Festival also was an attempt to fill the summer void. Lani Richardson, with the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, says the local music scene sees a silver lining in the loss of the large music festival:

“In fact, it’s even allowed (the local scene) to flourish, because now we have live music and performance everywhere around town all summer long,” said Richardson.

Mendelssohn hosts jazz concerts at the historic Emerson House. Last year, they also took charge of Charlotte's Web for the Performing Arts, featuring blues and Americana music as well theater productions.

But losing two major events is still a big loss for the city financially.

The Board of Directors for On The Waterfront told supportersin a farewell message that the festival generated millions of dollars for non-profits. In 2011, the festival reportedly brought more than $10 million to the area in taxes, tourism and wages.

The Illinois Department of Transportation listed AirFest as one of the benefits of the Chicago/Rockford International Airport’s overall economic impact.

Credit Rockford City Market

Bridget French, Marketing Manager at the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, works to make Rockford a destination. She says a bright spot for the summer months isRockford’s City Market.The downtown location features local vendors and live music. Last year, 57,000 people came to the Friday market … and she says this year is keeping pace.

French says amateur sports competitions continue to keep hotels booked through the summer months, but local restaurants may notice the loss of the major events.

“Visitors who would normally come into the area for these events will not be coming" she noted. "That being said, we will have to work a little bit harder to fill those gaps. We are just really hopeful other things will take their place.”

DJ Maclin hopes his group is one of the next to build on a niche market in Rockford.

He’s with Hip Hop Congress and helped organize last year’s “All Elements 2012,” a hip-hop festival at the Booker Washington Center.  In its first year, the festival drew more than a thousand people from Chicago, Rockford and Madison. Aimed at a younger, more urban crowd, it featured artists, musicians and poets.  Maclin says plans are underway for another All Elements Festival next year. But he says his organization only has about 10 people to help with planning, and finding a venue last time around was difficult due to misperceptions about hip-hop culture.

Credit Hip Hop Congress
Mural from All Elements Fest 2012

“We needed something that we can call our own, something that would educate the community on what the elements of hip-hop are,” Maclin said. "What the All Elements Festival did was create an audience geared for those artists and people who are like-minded and want to learn more. It’s just creating that environment."

Maclin and the city’s other event organizers may find it difficult to plan around funding uncertainties and changing audience interests. But they’re moving ahead with what they can control and hope that’s enough to reclaim Rockford’s nearly lost summer.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.