Bang-up biz for blueberry

Brisk business for vendors, big crowds in park for 39th festival

by Tom Coombe
How do you top a Blueberry/Art Festival that may have been one of the busiest ever?
Put even more people in town.
That was the report from officials at the Ely Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors Ely’s signature event of the summer.
Thousands of people, just how many nobody really knows, crammed into Whiteside Park last weekend for the three-day arts and crafts spectacular, now in its 39th year.
Anecdotal reports and those from festival vendors suggest that business was at an all-time high.
“The Blueberry Festival just seems to keep growing,” said Ellen Cashman, who organizes the event for the Chamber.
Festival hours were adjusted and the park opened at 10 a.m. rather than noon on July 26, the opening day, triggering a swarm of people that never seemed to subside.
“Right from the get go the pedestrian walkways were filled with people,” said Cashman. “It was packed. I think just by that crowds had to be larger than last year.”
According to Cashman, many vendors reported reaching their 2018 sales levels by mid-afternoon on Saturday.
“We had one vendor, who comes from Iowa, who won the second place ribbon in the craft judging division, he sold everything and didn’t have anything to load back in his vehicle back to Iowa,” said Cashman. “That’s a really good thing.”
Cashman added that another vendor, who made custom-made saunas, also had tremendous success.
“That’s a big ticket item but they sold well, so that’s another great indication,” she said.
Festival-goers have to eat, and the food court had long lines throughout the event and tables at Ely’s restaurants were at a premium.
Blueberry-featured dishes were a particular hit, with the Ely Kiwanis selling over 600 pies, about 25 more than they did in 2018.
The pancake breakfast hosted by Incredible Ely also had a banner year, with more than 1,000 orders being sold.
Festival organizers were blessed with good weather, save for a late-afternoon thunderstorm that closed the park an hour early on the opening day.
“We were tracking radar and the police department was also watching it,” said Cashman. “We thought we might be able to slide through but just before five o’clock, the police said ‘look at this,’ and we decided right away to close it at five o’clock. The people had seen the clouds and the crowds had already thinned out and a lot of people were heading out of the park anyway.”
The skies cleared for Saturday and Sunday, and people returned in droves to browse, buy and eat, and many stayed to sample beverages in the beer garden operated by the Ely Jaycees.
Festival visitors bought everything from jewelry to wood products to cabin knick-knacks at the roughly 300 arts and craft booths set up in the city park.
Parking was at a premium, with the high school parking lots filled with those who supported the Nordic ski team’s annual fundraiser.
Other festival-goers walked four, five or even six blocks to the park after finding a place to park their vehicle on a city street or avenue. Vehicles with license plates from California, Georgia, Texas and across the upper Midwest were spotted around the park during the three-day event.
The festival included activities for children and musical entertainment as well and the activity spread beyond the park as numerous other events, including an arts and artisan fair at Amici’s and a flea market at the Ely Arena, were held in conjunction.
The arena flea market serves as a fundraiser for Ely’s high school hockey team and had 40 vendors, up from last year. Overall attendance there was down, however, according to organizers.
For Chamber officials, attention now turns to a concert in Whiteside Park set for Thursday as well as the second festival of the year, the less large and more low-key Harvest Moon Festival, slated for Sept. 6-8.
While applications from vendors are still being accepted, Cashman said “we’re already even with the amount of vendors we had last year, so we’re bound to have more.”