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End of an era: Venetian Festival canceled

September 27, 2011|By John Paul (jpaul@wsbt.com), Click here to follow John on Twitter | By John Paul (jpaul@wsbt.com), Click here to follow John on Twitter

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. — After 33 years, the Venetian Festival board has made the tough decision to end it for good.

After years of ups and downs with attendance and revenues, 2011 turned about to be a good year for the Venetian Festival. Festival board members had a feeling of enthusiasm and hope. Now, months later, the feeling is something else -- disappointment.

"Shock and disappointment," said Lori Draper, Venetian Festival president.

For years, St. Joseph and the Venetian fest went hand in hand. Not anymore.

"A lot of people had the opinion it didn't have the local appeal anymore," said Diana Koehler. "A lot of the local people stayed away.

But each year, the festival was a huge draw.

"People were coming and coming and coming," said Draper.

That may have been the problem for St. Joseph residents.

"They weren't really happy about so many people coming to town and crowding their city," said Draper.

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They also weren't happy about the disruptions or the number of streets blocked off.

"The area has changed and access to the areas is more critical," said Police Chief Marc Clapp.

Especially around the relatively new Whirlpool Fountain and Carousel. People were fed up with the road closures and delays.

Draper said the results in the festival survey did the Venetian Festival in. Two out of three people surveyed said they avoid it and tax dollars shouldn't fund it. The city followed through.

There were also negative comments from merchants in the survey. They said they didn't make money.

"All the outside vendors are brought in for food, where the rides are, people, the beach," said Olivia Megna, who owns the Vitale's Famous Subs in downtown St. Joseph. "Nine times out of ten, people don't come up to the bluff to eat."

Draper said the festival could have moved to another city or scaled down to continue on. In the end, there were too many questions:

"At the end of the day, it was too big of a risk," she said. "We couldn't make it work under the constraints issued."

"We didn't have a choice but to retire the festival," said Draper.

Draper stopped short of saying the festival was driven out by some of the merchants and the older population, but she said it was evident: the festival attendees did not fit in.

"We are a rock festival, and we attract people of all demographics – white collar, blue collar workers, all kinds of people," Draper said. "Not everybody who comes to our festival fits in to the downtown picture.

Statement from the President of the Venetian Festival

"After much deliberation, the Senior Membership of the Venetian Festival made the difficult decision last night to retire this iconic event that has been a summer destination in the City of St. Joseph for 33 years. The decision came only after exhaustive discussion of any reasonable means of redesigning the festival to fit the parameters set forth by the city during a meeting with city officials last week.

"While city officials offered to listen to a new plan for the festival, they were direct in that they were inflexible on certain constraints, and festival organizers felt there was indifference toward working cooperatively to retain the event in the city.

"Following that meeting, festival organizers studied a variety of concepts for redesigning the festival to work within the city's parameters including, as many have often suggested, "returning to its roots" of a smaller festival confined to the arboretum. However, the passing of years that, among other things, resulted in significant growth of trees in the original arboretum location, the need to update the infrastructure to support the event, public safety issues, and skyrocketing costs of entertainment, made that option neither viable logistically or advisable financially for the organization.

"Consequently, after much hopeful discussion of continuing on, the membership came to the sad conclusion that the Venetian Festival no longer had a home in the city of St. Joseph, and elected to retire the event.

"For festival organizers, it has truly been an honor and a privilege to present this festival to southwestern Michigan for the past 33 years. The Venetian Festival has been a labor of love for all of us involved, and we are deeply saddened to see the festival come to this end. But we hope that you - our friends and fans - will continue to cherish the memories of spending the third weekend of every July at the Venetian Festival, and we thank you for the wonderful memories you have created for us, as well."

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