"What did you get?"
It's a common question overheard all over The Square during TroyFest weekend. Art patrons proudly pulling out a painting or piece of pottery from its protective paper, a college student pulling back her hair to show off handcrafted earrings, a child showing a sneak peek of their Mother's Day gift, a Dad returning from the Food Court with a fried concoction... It's always fun to to hear what people find at TroyFest.
Serving on our local arts festival planning committee for 12 years, I have brought home quite a few TroyFest finds. I have a treasured collection of artwork and stories of TroyFest vendors and friends and experiences that truly bring color to my life.
13 years ago, I was living in Birmingham, engaged with plans to move back to my hometown. I was in Troy for wedding events and I remember driving through downtown, seeing a few tents and splashes of color and I was intrigued. It was the first annual TroyFest. The Jean Lake Festival of my childhood had a new location and a new name.
I remember walking through the artwork, running into my junior-varsity-basketball-coach-turned-birdhouse-builder and thinking how charming this little event was. How proud I was to see artists in little downtown Troy. How this was the perfect opportunity for me to get involved when I moved back.
I had an art minor, had seen Alabama art hanging in museums in New York and the House of Blues in Chicago and had begun my small art collection. I was preparing to adjust back to small town living and I thought this was something fun that would give me something to do.
And so, I did.
I volunteered on the TroyFest Committee for the following 12 years, serving more than a decade as the Chair. I met new friends, learned how to manage events, people and budgets. I stood my ground with a very angry hot dog vendor (while 7 months pregnant) and yes, multiplied my art collection in the process.
As I consider the experiences, the lessons learned and the relationships I made, I realize that what I really brought home from TroyFest is so much more valuable than art.
I got the unique perspective to work with City of Troy Departments, understand their roles and responsibilities, the personalities and how they all worked together with the public and private sectors. I worked alongside city employees that put in the extra hours needed to make sure our city shined extra brightly during TroyFest weekend.
I learned that the Grounds Dept. really does more than plant & water flowers. A whole lot more, in fact!. It turns out that electricity and water are kinda important to outdoor events such as TroyFest and thankfully our Utility Dept. patiently educated me on the underlying infrastructure of our downtown area.
We worked with our Police and Fire departments to creatively block off streets and design the festival map to ensure the growing festival maintained both the aesthetics and the access that was vital to keep our festival fun but also safe.
When you bring 10,000 people to downtown Troy, they tend to create waste. Environmental Services hold the responsibility of keeping the streets clean and the garbage and recycling containers serviced, which is no easy task considering the amount of food consumption alone.
Our Public Relations Dept. promotes the festival and showers our guests with Southern hospitality. From understanding the tax collection system with our City Clerk to boosting our exposure with tournament teams at the Rec Dept., I had the opportunity to work with practically every city department and meet some truly dedicated, city employees.
Of course, without the support of both Mayor Lunsford and Mayor Reeves and the City Council, past and present, TroyFest would not have grown to what it is today. Their funding and recognition of the importance and impact of such an event in our community leveraged our resources in terms of grants and private sponsorships.
While I never could have guessed that the Chair would be responsible for coordinating all these various resources with the City, I now understand the complexity and orchestration of how all the various departments work.
I got the opportunity to serve as a host and spokesperson for the City of Troy. I would travel to other festivals to get ideas and recruit artists. I would often see/hear what other communities were doing right and bring suggestions back to our city leaders. Many we were able to implement for not only TroyFest but in our downtown area and events across the city.
I received feedback from our out-of-town visitors (both vendors and festival attendees) about their impressions of Troy. I heard outsiders expectations, questions, suggestions. I worked with the committee to address any complaints and beamed with pride when I would hear the most common comment "everyone here is just so friendly!"
I got to practice problem-solving, in a quick, creative and efficient process. When you realize you've assigned 200 lb. teak furniture to a steeply, inclined street or that your food vendor doesn't have access to power, you learn to think on your feet. It's easy to overreact in tense times. Seriously, you can't imagine the stress strawberries can create! I learned to gather information, listen to others, consider all possibilities before making a hasty judgement. I learned to focus on the solutions rather than problems. I learned that every challenge is an opportunity.
I got the lesson that when you are in charge, sometimes the only thing you can control is your response. Such as those times with threatening weather on the horizon and everyone is looking to you to make the call, or when you have an emotional vendor in your face, a volunteer didn't fulfill their obligations. When you have prayed for beautiful weather and you get sunshine but also 30 mph wind gusts and all you can hear is glass breaking, tents falling and vendors cussing. It's moments like those that I learned there was absolutely nothing I could do to control the situation except put a smile on my face, think before I speak, find a positive (or at least the humor in the situation) and inspire others around me to do the same.
I got to see the power of volunteer spirit. The TroyFest Committee is a 100% volunteer force of year-round planning, personal investment and donation of time and resources. Throughout the festival, the committee relies on community volunteers to man the kids arts & crafts area, pull wagons of water to artist booths, sell t-shirts and fill in for other tasks during the festival weekend. While the City of Troy provides a great deal of resources and manpower, it's the committee volunteers who make decisions, experiment with new ideas, and inspire their neighbors to support the festival.
I got to experience the beauty of community. One of my favorite moments of TroyFest each year is about mid-Saturday afternoon, when all the vendors are settled and in business and the volunteers are steadily working and the entertainment stage is hopping and the crowds are shopping that I take the mental snapshot of the beautiful landscape of our diverse community. Neighbors socializing, strangers striking up conversations, reunions among people who once lived here or there, voices I recognize immediately and faces I have never seen, and perhaps will never see again. When all those people gather in our downtown, mixed in with the diverse talents of our artisans and surrounded by our historical buildings, it paints quite a colorful, picture perfect moment. I'm proud to have been apart of something that truly bring art and people together in downtown together in celebration of our community.
TroyFest may be fun and casual but it could be a case study for leadership, community, the power of public/private partnership and civic pride.
13 years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be running for City Council. Nor could I have imagined how a few art booths scattered around the downtown gazebo could have inspired me to get so involved and place me on a path to teach me so much about my community and myself.
In that time, I've participated as a committee member, a patron and even there was that one time I shared a booth with some friends with our lovely (ahem) crafts. And yet, for the first time this year I get to support TroyFest as a volunteer. I'm reporting for duty at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and I'll be ready and willing to do whatever the committee assigns me to do before moving onto the Community Corner to volunteer with my church.
And although I've retired my STAFF shirt, I'm still making my shopping list. No matter what I may bring home to hang on my walls (which consequently don't have much space left), I know I've received more lessons and experience that have prepared me for community leadership than I could have anywhere else.
I hope you'll join me this weekend for TroyFest. I hope you'll show me what you got! And perhaps I'll have the opportunity to show you what I got this fall representing District 4.
See you on the Square!