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I Love a Parade: Events as Economic Drivers

Engage: Fourth Economy has been thinking a lot lately about the events, assets and people that create culture and quality of place in a community. We are working on a Cultural Master Plan for Charlotte, NC; a Creative Economy Plan for Gwinnett County (GA) and an Art, Culture and Outdoor Economy Assessment for York County(PA). We would be happy to share what we are learning and recommending - get in touch via [email protected]


This past weekend saw the return of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (known locally simply as “Arts Fest”) to State College, PA, after a COVID-related hiatus of two years. The event, first held in 1967, attracts roughly 125,000 visitors to the area at a time of year that’s a low point for businesses as the students and faculty that make up the bulk of the area’s customer base are away during the summer.

Arts Fest is the critical economic bridge that can be “make or break” for local businesses and represents a significant portion of income for exhibiting artists, musicians, food vendors, and other economies supported by the event (we’ll be exploring the workforce impacts of events in a future blog post).

The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts returned this year after a two-year hiatus. The event attracts artists and visitors from across the country.

In addition to the economic importance, Arts Fest is critical to the vibrancy of the community and sense of place. It’s an event that has become an asset and the last two years were notably sadder for its absence.

Here are some reasons we love festivals and events for economic development reasons, some tips for communities to consider when planning their own events, and some of our favorite fests!

Festivals: why we love them

  • Festivals are an opportunity for communities to put their best foot forward. They can attract visitors from outside the area who might consider moving to, or starting a business in the area.

  • They can promote neighborhoods in need of economic development. In addition to attracting tourists, festivals and events can bring life to neighborhoods and attract locals to parts of a city they may not otherwise frequent.

  • They can serve as a “soft entry point” for entrepreneurs. Festivals that allow vendors can serve as an inexpensive way for entrepreneurs to get their products in front of the public, or for hobbyists to test an idea that may take them out of the garage and into the marketplace.

Festivals and street fairs can give hobbyists or small entrepreneurs a chance to get their products into the marketplace and test new ideas.

  • They can be a catalyst for creative re-use. Is there an underutilized building, park, or open-space in your community that could accommodate an event? The event itself can raise funds to re-imagine the space and draw attention to its potential.

  • They can promote other assets. How are you getting to the festival? Festivals can draw attention to trails, bike paths, and public transportation - highlighting these assets for people who may not otherwise take advantage of them.

How to get it right

  • Lower barriers to entry for would-be entrepreneurs and vendors. Complicated permitting processes and fees, expensive space rent, and stringent insurance requirements can be tough to navigate for people who may not have a full-time operation or are new to running a business. Understanding that certain requirements are a must to protect health and safety - event planners should look at requirements and fees and eliminate those which are not essential and provide clear guidance and resources for navigating those which are.

  • Just add food, music … and vegetables. An event need not have an elaborate premise. Regional festivals from coast-to-coast have centered on things the community is known for, from the California Strawberry Festival, to the Corn Festival of Ridgeville, Ohio, to Pittsburgh’s Picklesburgh Festival; what they all have in common is food, music, vendors, and local flavor!

  • Innovate, don’t imitate. There will only ever be one SXSW or Coachella. While these events may lend inspiration to your event, trying to recreate them is rarely successful. These events started out small and local before gaining national recognition. Your event may not be a household name on day one - but gaining local and regional notoriety are just as important.

  • Make it yours! Most importantly events should be reflective of their communities. While Mardi Gras is perhaps the most famous example, New Orleans’ Jazz Festival, Philadelphia’s Mummer Parade, and Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Scotland) are a few excellent examples of events that have become iconic representations of their city, as important to the place-brand as buildings, sports teams, and famous sons/daughters.

A few of our favorite ‘fests’:

Erie, PA

What it is: While this years’ event has passed, this event brings together “bites, brews, and bands” featuring local food trucks, breweries, wineries, and musical acts - all to benefit the local school district!

Why we love it: Food truck festivals require minimal effort to pull off - any parking lot, street, or vehicle-accessible spot can be turned into a venue with very little alteration. Making this a mission-driven philanthropic event benefits the community and encourages participation from local residents.

Columbia and Boonville, MO

What it is: This weekend-long event takes bicyclists through the Katy Trail State Park with live music along the way. Riders depart from Columbia, MO, on Saturday morning and enjoy live music and entertainment at stops along the way. Arriving at the destination in Boonville, MO, riders are greeted by food vendors and more music! The day repeats in reverse on Sunday with the ride back from Boonville to Columbia.

Why we love it: This event involves outdoor recreation, highlights two cities, and provides entertainment for avid cyclists and those who wouldn’t be caught dead on two wheels (gate passes are available for events at either end).

Lafayette, LA

What it is: This music and arts festival has a mission to “Enrich the community with a celebration of its native cultures through performing arts, educate the public of the historical achievements and artistic expressions of related global cultures while developing an appreciation for the arts, and to develop culture and tourism, as well as enhance economic development by expanding Louisiana’s reputation as an arts center and a destination for artistic events.”

Why we love it: While Mardi Gras gets all the buzz, this event happens outside of NOLA reaching an audience of more local Louisianans, while also attracting a large crowd from other states. It’s a celebration of diverse and unique cultures that span music, performing arts, and visual arts to create an experience unlike one you’d find anywhere else.

Winfield, KS

What it is: Evolving from a two-day competition (flat-picking is a method for playing guitars and banjos, often in bluegrass music) the event now spans five days with entertainment on four stages, a juried arts fair, workshops, and contests.

Why we love it: The event is largely a participatory event where most people who attend play an instrument and participate in workshops or campsite “picking”. Even the musical acts hired for the event “who appear on stage also go into the campgrounds and join around campfires to pick with everyone else.”

South 9th Street Festival (aka: Italian Market Festival and Grease Pole Climbing Competition)

South Philadelphia, PA

What it is: In addition to the grease pole climbing (more on that below), the event includes a procession of saints, two-day music festival, a halfball tournament, and artisan vendors.

Why we love it: Who doesn’t want to eat some of the best food Philly has to offer while watching teams climb a 30 foot pole greased with lard (sorry, this is a non-vegan event) to “reach prizes of meats, cheeses, gifts, and money.”? This event harkens back to long-held traditions which extend to “the old country” and that have been a part of the community for generations.


We hope you’ve been inspired by these ideas. If you are interested in learning more about how Fourth Economy helps communities and organizations create strategic, equitable, and resilient economies - get in touch!

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