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Downtown learns to morph into Festival City

Special events help enliven area, bring more people to Rochester's core

Plasticiens Volants’ 2017 BIG BANG at Parcel 5 during the Fringe Festival. (Photo by Erich Camping)

Plasticiens Volants’ 2017 BIG BANG at Parcel 5 during the Fringe Festival. (Photo by Erich Camping)

The Roc Holiday Village, Rochester Fringe Festival and Super City Rochester have all taken root in downtown Rochester in recent years, combining with other long-time attractions to create an expansive variety of entertainment and events in the city’s core downtown.

Efforts to revitalize downtowns across the country are underway, and Rochester is no different from other small- to medium-sized cities seeking to revitalize urban cores. While Rochester and other localities across the state are working to attract retail establishments and reintroduce housing to downtowns, a growth in entertainment options could play a key role in creating a more vibrant downtown Rochester.

In addition to the various long-time attractions that call Rochester home, such as Lilac Festival and Jazz Fest, the Rochester Fringe Festival joined the fray about five years ago — bringing an international concept to Western New York — and more recently the Roc Holiday Village and Super City Rochester came on the scene to enhance an already stellar lineup of festivals for a city the size of Rochester.

Rochester, along with dozens of other localities around New York, has seen a significant increase in downtown housing. Rochester Downtown Development Corporation (RDDC) Vice President Laura Fox O’Sullivan said there has been “an obvious trend” toward people moving downtown, pointing to an August 2019 Downtown Market Report that indicates more than 7,500 people are living in downtown Rochester with another 2,300 expected in the next four years.

The influx of downtown residents in recent years has helped fuel the rise and success of some of the city’s newest festivals, according to Fox O’Sullivan.

“There are more people that are living downtown,” Fox O’Sullivan said. “And those people are showing more interest in walkable neighborhoods, the vibrancy of downtown, the arts and culture and that’s creating a force behind these events.”

Fringe Festival Producer Erica Fee said the inaugural Rochester Fringe Festival in 2012 brought about 30,000 attendees over what was then a five-day event and grew to attract more than 75,000 people.

Fee said the larger, free shows, which are curated by the festival organizers, are designed to draw people downtown who will then filter out to the surrounding venues. In addition to the large performances, Fee said local venues program the “vast majority” of Fringe performances, including more than 575 performances throughout this year’s two-week event.

“It’s important to our mission to draw people downtown and to create an energy downtown, which we feel is important for all sectors of the community,” Fee said. “We’re hoping to give Rochester a bit of a shot in the arm there and also to draw people downtown and increase the attendance at these venues, and to really, crucially — one of the biggest reasons we do Fringe — is to give these artists a platform.”

Roc Holiday Village is another recent addition to Rochester’s festival scene. Following a successful first year will again be constructed in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in 2019. Festival organizers sought to provide a free or low-cost experience for people of all ages and decided to make downtown home.

“We wanted it to be a space where if you came with your family you had enough to do for a few hours,” said Roc Holiday Village co-founder and producer Jenna Knauf. “And it had to have something for everyone.”

Knauf said in addition to Santa Claus and Christmas themed elements, the Holiday Village also includes celebrations of Hanukkah and Kwanza. She said organizers also sought to offer as many free activities as possible to ensure children and families would have a positive experience.

“Our whole mission statement, when we first put it together, was this event would be very much community-based, inclusive and diverse,” she said. “We wanted every child and person—no matter where they came from or who they were—to feel like the event was for them.”

Knauf, who owns Bella Events Group and co-founded the annual festival with Sean McCarthy ad Kelli Marsh, said as a child growing up in Rochester she remembers visiting Magic Mountain at the Sibley Building each year and as an event planner for nearly two decades that idea had always been in the back of her mind.

Knauf said the Holiday Village “had to be in the city,” in part because organizers wanted it to feel like a true community event for everybody.”

“We love the city of Rochester and there’s no other place it could possibly be but the city,” she said. “We like the proximity and that it’s centralized to everybody. It’s easy to get to no matter where you are.”

Being nearby to The Strong National Museum of Play was also a benefit, Knauf said, noting many people coming up from the suburbs are familiar with that area of the city.

Though the event didn’t sell tickets, Knauf said organizers counted incoming attendees and estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 people visited each day, apart from the two days it rained during last year’s event, for an estimated total attendance of 120,000.

Knauf said festival organizers were preparing for an even better 2019, planning to add more seating, expanding the lodge, increasing the number of igloos in the igloo village, adding food options and tweaking other activities, such as Santa’s Workshop.

Much like Fringe Festival and the Roc Holiday Village, Super City — the newest of the three annual events — seeks to provide as much free programming as possible, according to founder Jason Hilton, who also owns and operates the comic store and cereal bar Pop Roc.

“We believe there is also a certain amount of people out there who don’t have access to heroes because it’s cost prohibitive,” Hilton said, noting entrance to the inaugural festival earlier this year was free. “So kids, low-income families, who probably need heroes more than anybody else don’t get access to them because comics cost money, comic-cons cost money, everything costs money. We wanted to bring in as many free options as possible.”

Hilton describes himself as a “lifelong comic book reader and collector” who traveled to comic conventions across the country for “years and years.” Hilton said the conventions, despite being centered on toys and comics, weren’t particularly family-friendly events, and it spawned an idea in him to try to change that.

Local events, such as Fringe Festival and the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, attract as many people as some of the crowded comic-cons, Hilton said, and that started him down the road of thinking “bigger not smaller.”

Super City Rochester was born from the idea, and in August the inaugural festival took place “on a shoestring budget” with only about six months of planning, Hilton said. The festival attracted a few thousand people, and Hilton said the plan is to expand in 2020.

“Sort of take over the city for the weekend just like a Jazz Fest does, except my people — the geeks and nerds of the world,” he said, noting there are plans to create more niche, or specialized areas such as “Super Hero Town,” “Sci-Fi Town” and “Horror Town.”

With all the efforts to improve downtown Rochester, Hilton said the one missing ingredient that often is overlooked is making it a more family-friendly place where people want to raise their children.

“If you don’t have that family component or that family element then how are we going to grow,” he asked. “If we start raising kids in the city, those kids will grow up to live in the city and then their kids will live in the city and we’ll start to actually grow a downtown and a vibrant city.”

Super City is part of Hilton’s way of trying to help, he said, working to bring people from all over the city and the suburbs to an experience that would make them want to come back.

“I’m trying to help in my own little way,” he said. “Let’s bring everybody together downtown, let’s break down the stereotypes—that it’s dangerous, there’s no place to park—all those are not true.”

Downtown festivals and events as just one of downtown Rochester’s many arts and culture assets, Fox O’Sullivan said, pointing to other efforts such as Eat Up Rochester and Arts in the Loop that aim to promote and capitalize on the city’s art and cultural assets.

Fox O’Sullivan said Rochester residents seem to support festivals and other short-lived events more passionately than other round-the-calendar initiatives, and RDDC officials have learned to embrace that.

“Rochester is a city of festivals,” she said. “People will show up for festivals.”

Roc Holiday Village is “a great example,” she said, noting people are willing to show up in downtown Rochester even during potentially inclement weather.

The various downtown festivals and events throughout the year not only attract people to Rochester’s downtown who might not otherwise visit, but Fox O’Sullivan said the events also show people there is a captive audience in the city and provides others with “hope and creativity to try out different things.”

Fox O’Sullivan said festivals and events can help create repeat visitors out of individuals who might come for a brief event but realize the city has much more to offer.

“There are things to do here—it’s a really unique place,” Fox O’Sullivan said. “And during these festivals our downtown is transformed.”

Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance journalist.


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