As the 2017 Peanut Butter Festival concludes, many folks are already excited for next year. Several recent news articles addressed the future of the Peanut Butter Festival with uncertainty – so as Chairman for the Festival and President of the Redbank Valley Chamber of Commerce, I’d like to address those concerns:
The Peanut Butter Festival began in September 1996 following the devastation caused by the July 19, 1996 flood. Julia Sabin, who was then the local manager of the Smuckers Peanut Butter Factory, suggested a festival to lift the community’s spirits following all the hard work of recovery from the damage wrought by the flood. The Peanut Butter Festival was born and has continued every year since then thanks to Smucker’s support and dedicated community members, except for one year when the festival had to be cancelled during the 2004 storms and flood. Jackie Quinn of First United Bank served as Chairperson for many years. As the festival grew, more people got involved. Ryan Wells, Mark and Wendy Wyant, Brian Reichard, Justin Moore, Lisa Hrinda, Tim and Jenn Murray, Chuck Leach, Rich McGarrity and many others have been faithfully involved for many years to the present day.
While leadership has changed several times over the course of the festival’s history, this past year, the festival’s previous chairpersons, Dianna Brothers and Amanda Coon retired from their leadership roles after managing the festival for over a decade. Both ladies (and their families) have sacrificed countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears to support the annual event. Dianna and Amanda (and leaders before them) voluntarily invested their heart and soul into what began as a one-day event with a handful of activities/vendors, but has grown into a multifaceted three-day festival with numerous events/activities. As the festival continued to grow, volunteer turnover became increasingly more difficult to manage, eventually leading to times of uncertainty and a questionable future for the festival.
I have unfortunately witnessed folks criticizing Dianna and Amanda for their decision to step down, but in actuality, these ladies need to be commended for their years of dedication and service to the community. Over the past several years, I witnessed their frustrations, desperation and cries for help, yet they continued time and time again, just one more year, just one more time. Both ladies have gone above & beyond in their service to the community, so when they decided to resign, it was time for a new chapter in the festival’s history.
Being one of the younger members of the Board and incoming President, I felt a certain obligation to fulfill my social responsibility and ensure the festival continued. I recently learned most of my fellow board members have been involved in the community for most of their lives – dedicating countless hours of service to the Redbank Valley – this was very encouraging and motivated me to find a co-chair outside of my current board as to not burden my board members who have already given so much. I met Miss (Lisa) Kerle while we were attending Clarion University for our Masters in Business Administration. She eventually moved to New Bethlehem and conveniently became my neighbor. Over the past several years, Lisa has been involved with the Redbank Valley Community Center, Redbank Valley School District, New Bethlehem Borough Council, and numerous other community events and activities. After witnessing several instances of Lisa’s exceptional leadership, dedication and positive impact in the community, it made sense that we work together to breathe new life into the Chamber’s signature event.
During one of our public Peanut Butter Festival meetings, several other volunteers, namely Gennie and John Gerow offered to lead the festival, but these folks had just recently moved back to the area. They remembered the Peanut Butter Festival from when it began in the late 90’s, but had not experienced the exponential growth of the festival over the past decade. With the intent to not overwhelm our newcomers, the Board decided to allow Lisa and I the opportunity to lead.
While planning for the 2017 Peanut Butter Festival, Lisa and I worked closely with previous festival chairpersons Dianna Brothers and Amanda Coon to prepare as best as possible. Both Dianna and Amanda were exceptionally helpful, contributing their years of knowledge, experience and advice. Using our business backgrounds, Lisa and I began compiling data, crunching numbers and performing an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT business model). We continued our efforts by recruiting volunteers, forming strategic partnerships, and developing various subcommittees to ensure a balanced workload.
We introduced the concept of operation/logistic manuals dubbed as ‘Playbooks’ after the playbook commonly used in sports/recreational activities. The ‘Playbook’ documentation was one of several strategies introduced to ease the transition of volunteer turnover and ensure festival sustainability. We sought guidance from Tracy Becker, Executive Director of Clarion Area Chamber of Business & Industry’s Autumn Leaf Festival, by expanding sponsorship opportunities and obtaining a ‘title sponsor’ otherwise known as Char-Val Candies. The title sponsorship improved cash flow, liquidity and financial stability while allowing the Festival to prominently showcase a local business. Lisa and I were sincerely appreciative to have the generosity and support of local business owner Howard Schreckengost, his family, his employees and the Char-Val Candy factory/store.
The title sponsorship also helped to ‘put the wheels in motion’ for addressing an ongoing concern of the electrical limitations in Gumtown Park. The Peanut Butter Festival committee worked alongside the Chamber Board of Directors with the help of local electrician Bill Reddinger to review possible solutions for upgrading/expanding Gumtown Park’s electrical infrastructure. As the festival has grown, the electric has not. Chamber Board member Jamie Lefever and New Bethlehem Mayor Tim Murray led the efforts to bring in several electrical engineers and begin the planning/research process. Also working alongside the Reichard family (owners of Gumtown Park) and the Shirey family (owners of Shirey Overhead Doors), efforts are moving forward to alleviate electrical concerns and improve the park’s overall infrastructure. Electrical improvements will support future growth, expansion and improve the overall ability for Gumtown Park to support community events & activities.
We also added a Marketing/Advertising committee, dedicated to promoting our sponsors. Without the support of our local business sponsors, the festival would not be possible. Gennie and John Gerow chaired this committee and did an exceptional job. Despite only having half the typical budget due to a lack of grant funding, the Gerows’ managed to expand the festival’s target audience, reduce expenditures and maintain a balanced budget. The committee added several new sponsorship tiers as well as increased value for our current sponsorship benefits. Overall, festival sponsors saw their advertising dollars go further, and they earned a higher return-on-investment.
Taking a page from the Clarion County Fair, we implemented a photography and videography committee led by Liz Harmon and Cecelia Harmon respectively. Both Liz and Cecelia did a tremendous job at capturing special moments through pictures and video. Liz’s photos captured so many special family moments as well as Cecelia’s videos were an enthusiastic and entertaining summary of each day’s events and activities. Additionally, chamber member and local photography business ‘Brinker Photographics’ hosted a very successful photo booth which allowed children, families and festival-goers the opportunity to dress-up in various costumes, enjoy fun props, and to share laughter/smiles with one another.
While reviewing festival expenditures, Lisa and I asked our committees to make a concerted effort to buy local, shop local; giving first priority to our Chamber members and local business community. The Peanut Butter Festival is one of the New Bethlehem area and Redbank Valley community’s largest events and driver of economic prosperity, yet a significant portion of funds were being spent outside the community, with non-chamber members. These outside expenditures were justified as there are some unique products/services that could only be obtained regionally – but, over the past several decades, the Redbank Valley’s business community has shifted, and can now support many of the Festival’s needs locally. Market research and industry awareness allowed us to bring back thousands of dollars which were invested in our Chamber members and local businesses.
It was truly a blessing to see the amazing turnout we had – vendors were happily overwhelmed and selling out of food/products, the car cruise ran out of placards and places to park cars, the Chamber sold out of Char-Val candy and nearly sold all of Smucker’s Peanut Butter – and crowds at the parade lifted my faith in community spirit. Yes, we still had unexpected issues with electric, garbage, bees/snakes, less than happy vendors etc, but our group of faithful volunteers helped to alleviate those issues. Furthermore, these experiences empowered our committees with the knowledge to better prepare for future festivals.
The 2017 Peanut Butter Festival has come and gone – and to some, it will hopefully be remembered as a pivotal turning point or new chapter in the festival’s history. Most folks will say we were lucky or we had good weather, but I believe we were truly blessed.
Following a recent newspaper article regarding the future of the festival, some folks asked if after seeing this year’s success, would Lisa and I consider leading next year’s festival. While both of us intend to still be involved in some capacity, we will not be leading its efforts. True success is when one can delegate their duties to another while ensuring long-term sustainability. Both Lisa and I are pursuing other business ventures, which we delayed in order to help rejuvenate the festival.
Some would say we’re quitting or prematurely abandoning our roles as leaders of the festival, but those with vision, experience and maturity, know that we are moving forward in a positive direction. Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they’ve made a difference, but volunteers don’t have that problem. After reading this article, you can surely see that we’re not leaving the festival – we’re just taking on a different role, while nurturing this year’s improvements to ensure the festival’s long-term sustainability. We have scheduled a follow-up public meeting next week, Thursday, September 28th at 6pm at Joe’s Restaurant to discuss constructive feedback/improvements and begin planning for next year’s festival.
While Lisa and I may not be the chairpersons next year, we are committed to ensuring the festival’s long-term success and look forward to seeing it continue for the foreseeable future. The committee chairpersons and their committees did a great job and we are sure that success can continue. Committees are the key to the festival’s success because the festival is just too big an event to rely on one, two or even three people.
The Peanut Butter Festival is one of our community’s largest and most prominent events, but there are many other improvements we desperately need, some of which include; job creation and vocational sustainability, growth of school and educational opportunities, recruitment and retention of small businesses, improved efforts to showcase local real estate, development of arts, crafts and cultural entertainment, promotion of natural resources and outdoor recreation, etc… For more details, I would welcome folks to review an article I wrote several years ago addressing public concerns regarding the past, present and future of the New Bethlehem area and Redbank Valley community: GordonBarrows.com/new-bethlehem-past-present-future
Words cannot express the sincere appreciation Lisa and I have for everyone who was involved in this year’s festival. We also appreciate the numerous calls, emails and texts with everyone’s kind words and positive reinforcement. Lisa and I are humbled to have had so many great committees and volunteers – if you see any of the folks on this list, please thank them for their time, dedication and commitment to our community: RedbankChamber.com/pbf-committee We did this together. May God continue to bless the New Bethlehem area and Redbank Valley community. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12:31.
Gordon Barrows, Chamber President & Festival Chairman
Redbank Valley Chamber of Commerce & Peanut Butter Festival
www.RedbankChamber.com or www.PBFestival.com
PS: Also, a special thank you to the Leader-Vindicator for their exceptional coverage of the Festival – here is an excellent article that summarizes the festival: http://www.thecourierexpress.com/peanut-butter-festival-deemed-a-success/article_73d1dd47-b8c5-580a-8f19-fe845669c35f.html