Ladies Night starts this Friday afternoon and goes on for days in Island Pond as the village hosts the second annual Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Weekend. The events include something for every woman. Locals will put on costumes Sunday afternoon at the historical society, after a touring male revue takes theirs off Saturday night.
From a champagne welcome to a send-off bingo game called by two drag queens, the weekend is all about having fun. (Tickets and more details are available at visitislandpond.com) But it’s part of a serious effort by a Brighton community development non-profit to stabilize revenue for local businesses.
Island Pond is a hub for snowmobiling and summer lake camps, but many small businesses struggle to stay solvent in the off season. There were eight vacant commercial buildings in the village in late 2016, when Brighton Community Forum started developing the Destination Island Pond Event Series. Community-wide discussions led by the Vermont Council on Rural Development helped focus attention on the problem.
“The challenge we had was how do we keep our businesses going from one month to the next,” said Mike Strait, who chairs the Brighton Select Board and leads event planning on behalf of the Brighton Community Forum. He also co-owns the Hearth & Home Country Store and knows from experience the difference that one well-timed busy weekend can make.
Last year, the non-profit helped organize one weekend of special activities monthly, each with a catchy name and theme. In addition to the first Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Weekend, there was Winter Carnival, Maple Fools Fest, July 4th, Farewell to Summer, Halloween, and Holiday Magic. Many built off events created and run by two local partners, Brighton’s town Recreation Department and the Island Pond Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber is the force behind Friday Night Live, the popular 10-week lakefront summer concert series which launches its 11th year on June 22. The group started running the concerts in part to bring neighbors together, but also because of the impact on village businesses, said president Jeanne Gervais.
“(The concert series) brings in people from Canada, people from New Hampshire and people with places here on the lake and that helps the economy of Island Pond,” Gervais said. “It’s been very successful.”
The key innovation in 2018 was stretching the concert and recreation events like Pond-a-Thon run and the living Foosball Tournament into multi-day affairs, with readings, appearances or food or drink specials inside village stores and restaurants. “We put the events inside the businesses, and then the businesses assist in those events,” Strait said.
In the inaugural year, the Brighton Community Forum was able to subsidize advertising and credit card costs, and front payments to entertainers thanks to funding from Vermont Community Foundation’s NEK Fund and the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation. The organization was also awarded a Rural Business Development Grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office in part to advise area businesses in how to participate in and benefit from the weekends.
Last year, ticket sales suggest that the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun weekend brought an additional 250 people to town and the benefit was substantial. Strait conservatively estimates that the weekend drove an additional $15,000 in spending. The Vermont Department of Taxes reported spending on restaurant meals alone in Essex County was up by fifteen to twenty percent in April 2018 over recent years. This year, the group moved the weekend from late April to Memorial Day weekend. That allows for an additional day of events and should make it even bigger, Strait said.
He is proud to point out that no businesses closed in town during 2018. And after almost 18 months of the strategy, new places are in the works. The last two vacant commercial buildings in town recently sold to buyers with plans of re-opening.
Island Pond isn’t alone in pursuing a creative event-based economic development strategy. Catamount Arts leads a Sunday summer outdoor concert series at Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury. The City of Newport has hosted Wednesdays on the Waterfront concerts over the last two years, and organized a Winter Festival weekend of recreational and cultural events.
“Festivals and special events are an important way that the creative, recreational and food sectors of our regional economy can intersect to everyone’s benefit,” said Northeast Kingdom Collaborative Director Katherine Sims. Their report with proposals to expand Tri-Sector impact, From Strength to Strength, can be found at nekcollaborative.com
For other communities interested in building on the idea, Strait stresses the importance of cooperation and dialogue. “You need a core group of people to pull things off together and support from area businesses to try new things,” he said. “You also have to be able to point out what isn’t working.”
The Northeast Kingdom Collaborative is a non-profit organization that has been working for 20 years to build a strong, vibrant Northeast Kingdom.