MUSKEGON — Though fewer merchants line the streets of downtown Muskegon than city officials would like, every summer they are inundated with people coming to attend the events that take place from June to September at Heritage Landing.
The hope is that that surge of activity will entice more businesses to see Muskegon in a new light.
“(The events) are really giving people the opportunity to see the progress that’s being made,” said Cindy Larsen, Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce president.
More people who use West Michigan as a vacation spot are planning to visit festivals such as the Michigan Irish Music Festival, the Unity Christian Music Festival and the 11-day Summer Celebration as a part of that vacation, Larsen said.
“The festivals are always increasing in attendance,” she added.
Muskegon Summer Celebration, the largest summer event at Heritage Landing, takes place over the end of June and beginning of July.
“The Summer Celebration was a great event this year and continues to rank as one of the biggest events in the state of Michigan,” said Pat Driscoll, marketing director for Summer Celebration.
Driscoll said sponsorship for the event was up this year, which is notable since many major events statewide suffered setbacks in sponsorship.
More than 600,000 people visited downtown Muskegon and Heritage Landing to take in Summer Celebration, which included a parade, fireworks, a family day and nightly concerts. Driscoll said he thought the weather and the diversity of music styles helped bring more local people to the event.
“We’ve always worked very hard to maintain ethnic diversity in our music,” he said. This year’s event saw a record number of national recording artists — 24 in 11 nights.
The event is important to local sponsors because it increases their visibility, Driscoll said. In a survey conducted this year, 72 percent of people questioned said they would shop at a business that sponsored Summer Celebration.
“I think that’s a measure for us of people willing to do business here in the area with local business,” he said.
All of the festivals give exposure to the projects that are happening downtown, said Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, Main Street manager for Muskegon.
“People have noticed the progress when they come down to see the events,” he said. “Almost every weekend this year there’s something big happening downtown.”
The festivals themselves also are expanding. This year for the first time the Michigan Irish Music Festival will be home to the Michigan Feis, an Irish dance competition.
“We actually had to send an application and get granted the license to do that,” said Deb Schaub, administrative assistant for Summer Celebration. “Right now we have just under 800 registered dancers and that doesn’t count the championship dances.”
Schaub said the September event could bring in up to 1,100 dancers, plus family members and well-wishers.
“This could be quite an undertaking,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Those attending the Feis, which will take place at L.C. Walker Arena, may help to increase attendance at the festival, which usually has 15,000 to 20,000 visitors.
“We offer a lot of activities for children at the festival, and lots and lots of music,” she said. “Maybe it will be enough to keep families in town all weekend.”
Downtown hotels already are booked for the weekend, Schaub said.
“There are people that come from all over.”
Schaub said the Michigan Irish Music Festival originated when she and a few others wanted to increase the number of cultural events in the area.
“Irish was first and Greek (Festival) was this year, and I got a call a few weeks ago from someone who’s interested in an Italian, and we’ve also been talking to the Hispanic community,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s educating the people in the area and making them more aware of things.”
Schaub said it is important to have specialty festivals, such as the Unity Christian Music Festival and the Silent Celebration Festival, a new event sponsored by the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Connection.
“We’re all kind of learning from each other,” she said.
Besides helping enrich the culture of the community, Schaub said the festivals help bring people to Muskegon.
“It definitely helps Muskegon County with tourism and things like that,” she said. “The restaurants and the hotels and everything benefit.”
Schaub said people will begin to see the potential of downtown Muskegon.
“Pretty soon they’re going to figure out this is the place to be,” she said.
Vondie Woodbury, executive director of the Muskegon Community Health Project, which is the primary sponsor of the Muskegon Shoreline Big Fat Greek Festival, said she hopes to see the Greek festival become a mainstay. Though its first year had some bumps and did not break even, Woodbury still called the event a success.
“We want to see it grow as a really vital part of the tourism here in Muskegon County,” she said. “It’s really very critical to the rebirth of the Muskegon downtown.”
Woodbury said having events like the Greek Festival gives people new ideas and new choices.
“It’s a little different from what we’ve been doing here in Muskegon,” she said. “It just adds to the excitement of summer.”
Summer Celebration Event Services Director Tanya Gonzalez said the festivals give visitors to Muskegon a new perspective.
“More and more people are traveling to Muskegon as a destination,” she said. “That’s really one of the key things we’ve been able to do for the city. Muskegon for so long has been thought of as a manufacturing town; they don’t really think of the beauty Muskegon has to offer.”
With the festivals continuing to grow along with the new construction and plans for downtown Muskegon, Gonzalez said the area finally may be living up to its potential.
“I’ve seen the whole transition and I’ve always believed that downtown Muskegon has a lot to offer,” she said.