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Riverfest comes to close with fewer button complaints, fewer arrests, decent weather

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 7, 2014, at 7:21 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 8, 2014, at 6:28 a.m.

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Mark 2014 as the year the whole button thing finally caught on at Riverfest.

The festival wound to its conclusion Saturday night after nine days of entertainment, rides, contests, activities and outdoor eating and drinking.

About 5,000 volunteers tended to tens of thousands of festivalgoers.

And this time, for the first time, they didn’t hear a lot of griping about the requirement to buy and wear a button on festival grounds – $5 for adults and $3 for kids – said Mary Beth Jarvis, president and chief executive at Wichita Festivals Inc., which puts on the event.

“If you’re clear enough about the button, people will get it and buy in,” Jarvis said.

It didn’t hurt that a button got everybody into all of the concerts and all but a few special attractions, like Arkansas River boat rides and the charity-supporting Ferris wheel, she said. In years past, there were separate admission charges for some of the concerts.

Final results aren’t in yet for this year’s attendance numbers, but the early indicators look good, Jarvis said.

The opening-night parade, symphony concert and fireworks extravaganza brought an estimated 75,000 people to the banks of the Arkansas River.

Country artist Jerrod Neimann and rocker Joan Jett drew about 20,000 each, while a gospel show headlined by singer-actress Tamela Mann (Cora in the Tyler Perry entertainment universe) brought in an estimated 10,000 people.

Another 5,000 or so participated in the running and walking events associated with the festival.

But about those buttons.

For decades, many people viewed buying a festival button as kind of optional, although volunteers would try to talk them into it – with mixed success.

And last year, the first time the festival really cracked down, it brought a lot of complaints from casual attendees who just wanted to wander a bit and maybe check out the food court offerings. This year, those complaints pretty much dried up, Jarvis said.

The button is important because sales represent about 30 percent of the $2.5 million it costs to stage the festival, Jarvis said. Another 30 percent or so comes from sponsorships; about 25 percent is in-kind donations, such as the city allowing free use of the Century II Convention Center and grounds; and about 15 percent comes from the festival’s share of food sales, she said.

But button control didn’t just help the bottom line, it also made for a better festival, she said.

As of Saturday evening, Jarvis didn’t know the total number of buttons sold at this year’s festival. It will be a few weeks, she said, before officials tally on-site button sales with those sold at other locations, such as Dillons and QuikTrip.

But, she said, “we are on case to sell more buttons on site” than last year’s 30,000, which was a little more than a quarter of the 104,000 total buttons sold in 2013.

Having buttons checked at every entrance to the festival’s three primary venues helped keep out those who weren’t there for the entertainment but to cause trouble, Jarvis said.

Jarvis said she knew the festival had turned a corner when she saw a man who had gotten out of hand being escorted out by police, and the crowd was making comments supporting the cops.

“People value the more-secured environment they feel we’ve created in the zone,” she said.

The effect has shown up on the police blotter.

Through Friday morning, Wichita police had made just 10 arrests during the festival. At the Saturday police media briefing, Sgt. John Hoofer said he hadn’t heard of any more since then.

“Our numbers are way down,” Sgt. Kelly O’Brien said. “Ten years ago at this time, we’d have 130 people” arrested.

All 10 arrests were for misdemeanor offenses, he said. There were more medical calls – 14 – than there were arrests at the festival this year.

“We’ve taken some good proactive steps, and it’s paid off for the community and the festival,” O’Brien said.

Among those steps were fencing in events and requiring the buttons for admission.

“When you control who comes into your event, you’ll have a cleaner event,” O’Brien said.

This year’s festival also led something of a charmed life weather-wise.

While Wichita has been hit with some downpours in the past week, they mostly happened late at night or in the early morning. And although some event times were shifted as a precaution, it was almost as if the rain was scheduled around Riverfest.

On Friday, during the big Indie Showcase concert, radar images showed the city as a virtual island surrounded by thunderstorms, but only a sprinkling of rain fell downtown.

The generally fair weather during festival hours was good news for Mario Dragomir of Minneapolis, who owns 15 fast-food stores in mall food courts and runs a pita sandwich stand at Riverfest.

He characterized business and the overall atmosphere of the festival as “very good.”

“I’ve been here 20 years,” he said. “It’s a lot of improving that is going in the right direction.”

The weather also held up Saturday evening as Marky Ramone, former drummer for punk rock band the Ramones, and vocalist Andrew W.K. took the stage for the festival’s closing concert.

The crowd continued to trickle in against a setting sun as Ramone performed his first song.

“Wonderful crowd with perfect weather,” said Jarvis, the Wichita Festivals president. She noted that 2013’s Riverfest drew 360,000 people total.

“The hope is, overall, we’ll be above that number” this year, she said.

Cheryl Baumeister, a visitor from the southern California city of Murrieta, said she was sad to see Riverfest coming to a close.

“What are we going to do without the River Festival?” she said. “I’m in denial. ... I’m going back to California.”

Looking ahead, Jarvis said one thing she’d like to improve for next year’s festival is traffic control around the festival.

“We want to get better at things like using streets to cause as little disruption downtown as possible,” she said.

As for other improvements, “we’ve got 350 days to figure that out,” she said.

Contributing: Stan Finger and Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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