Another satisfying "Garlicfest"

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BENNINGTON — A little rain didn't dampen the spirits of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce as it wrapped up the 22nd annual Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival this past weekend.

While Sunday saw damp skies and chilly temperatures, Saturday was a banner day for the popular festival.

"Yesterday we had record breaking crowds, about 9,600 people came through," said Matt Harrington, executive director of the Chamber. "The weather probably isn't going to be as good today, but yesterday we got a real influx of people."

"Yesterday we broke records with over 9,600 in one day. It beat all of our expectations," said "Garlicfest" veteran Lindy Lynch, who sits on the Chamber's Board of Directors. "It's fabulous. I'm not going to let these dark clouds hurt us today."

Record breaking turnout

Though numbers were positive, the festival's largest day in terms of attendance was not without its challenges.

"Traffic was backed all the way up to the Four Corners (In Bennington) we heard, but the vendors were very, very happy with their sales yesterday," said Harrington. "There were a lot of people here, a lot of bands playing, and we did have a little bit of a power outage — I guess a transformer blew, but I don't think it was our fault. We think an animal got up there, in true Vermont fashion."

"Yesterday was one of those days where what could go wrong did go wrong, but we made it through every one of those situations," said Marie Shutts, operations director for the Chamber. "The power went out but we made it, we needed generators and we got them, we had the biggest crowd ever and we handled it, and the weather was perfect. We're going to struggle a little bit today, but we're all good."

Despite dreary weather, the festival's vendors and volunteers were still out in full swing.

"It's a huge community event that requires hundreds to come out," said volunteer Jonah Spivak, Chamber president and owner of Hawkin's House Craftsmarket. "I had my daughter roped in for a number of years, but now she's off to college so my son is joining in on the team as well. Today there's some moisture in the air, but it's a lot of fun and for many people it's a tradition."

"I've been coming to the garlic festival for four years," said Lia Diamond, owner of the Apple Barn & Country Bake Shop. "I thought it would be not only a wonderful festival to participate in, but a great way to support the community."

Looking forward, and back

The festival saw a number of new developments in its 22nd year, with more to come in future iterations.

"We're always tweaking it and looking at people's comments from the survey to try and make it better," said Lynch. "Down in the kids tent we heard that we had to keep the teenagers happy, so we have video games down there with a TV and games from the Gamer's Grotto."

Alongside expanded entertainment, the Chamber is also pursuing an increased focused on merchandising.

"Last year we kind of tested out the merchandise store, but this year it's completely revamped," said Harrington. "There a lot more products including aprons and bags and fidget spinners. We're having a lot of fun with that."

"We have a brand new photo opportunity as you walk in, as well as new little street signs named after different varieties of garlic," said Lynch. "We're also trying to go green with two composting and recycling stations. It's working better than last year, but we'd like to tweak it."

Going forward, handling the festival's waste in a more sustainable way will be a priority for the Chamber.

"We know that festivals will be moving towards three waste management styles, and it will be mandatory by the state in a couple of years," said Harrington. "We're trying to be a little progressive with our ability to handle that."

Among other future areas of growth, Harrington cites expanded wifi capability, an improved speaker system, and continued refinements to parking.

"I think we will eventually have to handle the parking and traffic issue," said Harrington. "We've talked about doing shuttles downtown and that sort of thing."

Complicated parking is not the only issue that has arisen with growing crowds, however, as the Chamber struggles to recruit volunteers for the festival.

"Most of our volunteers have been doing this for years and years," said Shutts. "We try to bring in new blood, but it's not easy."

"The only negative is that there aren't enough volunteers," said Lynch. "There's lots and lots of perks, so we sure would love to get more."

Community camaraderie

For many of those returning to the festival year after year, it is a sense of community benefit that compels them to come out rain or shine.

"It's the person right next to us, and the community effort," said Harrington. "Overall it can be kind of stressful, but I think there's a long tradition, especially in Bennington, of pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps and doing the hard work."

"It's nice to plan for a year; it brings me joy to be part of something this successful," said Lynch. "Sure it brings me frustration, like yesterday when the power was off, but I like challenges. "

While the festival is a significant fundraiser for the Chamber, a non-profit organization, all of the funds go back into the Bennington community, according to Harrington.

"Whether it's our next event like Rock and Brews which will be funded by some of the stuff here, or the ongoing developments we make as a Chamber, they help bring people back to Bennington," said Harrington. "That benefits the whole community."

According to organizers, one of the biggest perks of the festival is the business boon it brings to the Bennington area.

"It contributes so much; every hotel is filled, every restaurant has waiting lines," said Lynch. "I've heard many people come back after they've discovered Bennington and they come back to shop, so there's that repeat business too."

"We're here for business and support of our community; our economic community as well as the larger community," said Shutts. "Years ago Labor Day was a dead weekend in Bennington, there was nothing to do. Now, it's a destination and people plan on coming to Bennington for Labor Day."

For vendors, the festival can provide valuable exposure alongside a boon in business.

"We're on the other side of town but when I come out here I see people that I normally wouldn't see in the course of a year, and it's always great connecting with all of the vendors," said Diamond. "It brings people to the area who normally might not come to Southern Vermont and experience all of the wonderful attractions that we have."

As it concludes its 22nd year, the Garlic and Herb Festival illustrates an ongoing effort by the Chamber to both strengthen the Bennington community and introduce visitors to all that Southern Vermont has to offer.

"I hear many people say that they come every year," said Spivak. "For a lot of these people, it's their first experience with Vermont or their main connection. It's great being an ambassador for that."

"We had one comment on our Facebook saying it [Saturday] was the perfect day, and it was," said Harrington. "It was sunny, there was good food, good beer, and bands playing. People can walk up and down southern Vermont and feel as sense of serenity in this crazy world."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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