Activating Community

How Events Play a Role in Developing Place

By Kevin Kinder

In the early days of the Fayetteville Roots Festival, Bryan Hembree just wanted something that fit Fayetteville, and roots-style music sounded right. As it turns out, that concept was bigger than any one stage, and he learned that hours before the first event. A pipe burst just before show time at the intended location, and he and co-creators Bernice Hembree and Jerrmy Gawthrop scrambled to move the bands they had booked to a different venue.

“We didn’t draw a picture of it,” Hembree says of the initial concept. “The idea was that it was for our community.” The community responded that first night and many to follow. The Roots festival has swelled to multiple venues, multiple nights and multiple days of the year, as festival-affiliated acts are routinely brought to Fayetteville outside of the five-day festival window.

The Hembrees are just one of many who have discovered that community engagement and events can foster or bolster a sense of place.

Austin Barrow was hired to bring a similar sense of community to El Dorado, which was losing population at least in part to its status as an entertainment desert. The president and chief operating officer of the Murphy Arts District (MAD) was told more than once that he was crazy for moving back when everyone else was moving away or going elsewhere to find things to do. Research conducted by Barrow and a St. Louis-based consulting firm indicated the average El Dorado resident was going out of town two weekends per month in search of entertainment.

Further research conducted via focus groups and interviews with city residents gave Barrow direction about the kind of programming MAD should offer, and the spirit those performers should embody.

Armed with that knowledge and financial resources from Murphy Oil, who needs talented workers to stay around, MAD is providing reasons to be in El Dorado.

Some 26,000 people visited MAD facilities during the opening weekend of events last fall. It’s worth noting El Dorado’s population is only about 18,000, according to recent estimates. Visitors keep coming, and MAD keeps adding things for them to do, like the opening of a children’s park called the MAD Playscape on May 19.

“The excitement hasn’t died down,” Barrow said. “We haven’t really rolled everything out.”

Barrow has been fielding an increasing number of questions about whether the successes of MAD can be duplicated elsewhere. He leans toward yes, but he offers qualifications, too.

“You have to have money. You can have a lot of great ideas, but without money, it doesn’t go anywhere,” he said.

Munnie Jordan, the director of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, knows that all too well. Twice retired from a role of executive director of the festival, but back at the helm in advance of the 2018 event in early October, Jordan says her nonprofit works at the capacity of its available funds. A successful year for her means attracting enough ticket buyers to pay the deposits for the acts she hopes to book the following year. It’s not lucrative, but it’s enough. And it’s of critical importance to Helena, said Jordan, a lifelong resident.

She also knows why crowds return year after year.

“We have found a niche. That’s the blues. That is our culture. That is our heritage,” Jordan said.

For Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival executive director Jennifer Gerber, her niche is just as much the quirky resort town where the festival takes place as it is the world-class films that are screened each fall. Residents come for the films. They fall in love with the experience because of the town’s flexibility, history, walkability and its bath houses. Kathleen Turner, the 2017 honorary chair of the festival, enjoyed the overall experience so much she extended her stay in town after the festival concluded. The way she embraced the festival is not unlike the way Hot Springs residents have adopted the documentary festival, now in its 27th year.

The response of the town serves as a lasting metaphor for what the festival offers Hot Springs and how entertainment events can define a place. And festivals like the documentary event in Hot Springs and those throughout Arkansas continue because of the resilience of those who believe it helps their community.

“This festival exists because this town still believes in it,” Gerber said.