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Blueberry/Art Festival fills up the town

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by Tom Coombe

It didn’t take long to determine that the 42nd annual Blueberry/Art Festival would be a successful event.

That seemed to have been determined, in fact, before noon on the opening Friday of the three-day event.

Just hours into the festival, Whiteside Park was overflowing with people and vendors were already reporting brisk business.

“My gosh,” Ely Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eva Sebesta said of the opening day rush. “The poor Kiwanis. I think they had 800 blueberry pies and they sold 500 of them on Friday.”

The trend continued through Sunday, when the festival wrapped up.

Back at full capacity for the first time in four years, the city park was filled with about 250 vendors and many thousands of visitors, who browsed, shopped and sampled the food and beverages while braving long lines at the food court and beer garden.

The Chamber-sponsored event met expectations and then some, according to Sebesta.

“I think everything went really well,” she said. “We had some great new vendors, and many of the vendors we talked to said they’re already excited to come back.  We had several vendors that basically ran out of merchandise and had to resupply.”

The Chamber has surveyed vendors and found “we’re really seeing that sales were great for the festival.”

No formal attendance compilation was done, but anecdotal reports were along the same lines of record or near-record attendance on the opening day of the festival, and continued large crowds both Saturday and Sunday.

Those that were looking for a place to park near Whiteside, or those who dealt with traffic within blocks of the park would likely provide confirmation.

In its history, the Blueberry/Art Festival has become Ely’s signature event and serves as the backdrop for the busiest weekend of the summer.

Always held on the last weekend of July, the festival fills the park along with lodging establishments and attracts vendors and visitors from across Minnesota and well beyond.

Sebesta said the Chamber also is asking vendors about their economic impact, including their spending on lodging and other services.

After two festivals where the quantity of booths was rolled back, in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an increase in vendors this year and a new layout in Whiteside Park.

“That turned out great,” said Sebesta. “We are looking at maybe making some changes in the southern part of the park, but everybody seemed to like the booth spacing so we will keep going with that. We are getting some good feedback.”

Reaction has also been positive on social media and in reports to Chamber leaders.

Through Operation Blueberry, the Chamber looked to spread the impact of the festival beyond the park to downtown businesses.

“It seemed like that helped,” said Sebesta. “I think the traffic spilled over to other businesses. One of our staff members was downtown visiting businesses on Friday and the stores were jam-packed.”

In 2020, the festival along with most other area events were cancelled because of the pandemic. Plans for a more typical 2021 event went awry because of the weather. During the evening of the festival’s first day, a severe thunderstorm brought rain, hail and damaging winds that wreaked havoc across the area and inside the park, where trees fell and many vendors had tents damaged.

The 2022 event seemed more typical with large crowds and a full festival, and that momentum clearly continued in 2023.

Thoughts at the Chamber headquarters now turn to September and the upcoming Harvest Moon Festival, which is set for Sept. 8-10.

“We still have a few spaces open for that,” said Sebesta. “We’ll have somewhere around 100-to-120 vendors. We’ll have cut off for vendor registration in about two weeks.”

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