Cherries take a back seat at their namesake festival

It’s called the National Cherry Festival and it’s supposed to be about cherries and the cherry industry.

But some of the festival’s business partners – many of them smaller operations that focus on all kinds of locally made cherry products – are beginning to wonder where they fit into the larger picture.

The Cherry Festival just announced another round of fee hikes for vendors who sell cherry-related items (and all kinds of other offerings) and some are wincing.

Farm market vendors who sell exclusively cherry products will pay $2,000 for a booth at this year’s festival, an increase of almost 54 percent over 2013. Those selling non-cherry products will pay $3,000, 50 more than last year.

They aren’t the only ones paying more. Rates for vendors in the food court and beer tent also went up, but not as much. Corporate promotional partners’ rates are negotiated individually, but most of those also increased.

The reason for the latest round of hikes, according to Cherry Festival Executive Director Trevor Tkach, is to cover the cost of bigger entertainment acts, which are presented free to festival goers.

Tkach said bigger crowds drawn by those bigger-name acts should increase vendors’ profits and offset price increases.

That’s the theory. But theory doesn’t pay the bills.

Naturally Nutty owner Katie Kearney, who sells nut butters at the Cherry Festival’s farm market, saw a 50 percent hike in her fee.

“I was frustrated,” she said. “I feel like it makes it more difficult for a small local business to be able to afford a local festival.”

Six Lugs manager Daniel Umulis said the price increase will be too much for small local companies trying to break into the market.

Umulis paid $4,000 for two booths for his cherry dressings and preserves. Umulis said he can stomach the price increase unless bad weather hits.

“This year my main concern is rainy days. It could really cause some big issues for us as far as the cost,” he said.

It’s not as though rates have been frozen in recent years.

The cost for farm market vendors was $1,700 in 2008, then dropped to $1,000 for vendors selling exclusively cherry products in 2009. Fees went up in 2011 to $1,250 for cherry product vendors and $1,950 for non-cherry vendors. Prices increased to $1,300 for cherry product vendors and $2,000 for non-cherry product vendors in 2013.

This isn’t the first time the festival has put a major emphasis on bigger-name entertainment, but past experiments had mixed results.

And it’s fair to ask why festival officials think that’s so necessary, anyway. Presumably they know their market and what draws crowds. But at what point should the festival worry less about bigger-name acts, bigger crowds and bigger everything?

Moving the festival to the first week in July virtually guaranteed local cherries wouldn’t be harvested in time for the festival, and now those who specialize in all things cherry are getting hit – again – with fee hikes to help pay for bigger entertainment acts.

It’s time for the festival, the community, the cherry industry and the festival’s business partners to talk frankly about what the future should look like and how to get there.

– Traverse City Record-Eagle