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Hanging Out With Mary Beth Jarvis

It must be so exciting to be this close to Riverfest. What is the most exciting part for you?

Well, here’s what I love. I mean, we have a couple of hundred volunteers that work on this year-round along with our staff, and then, these few days before Riverfest, the rest of our six thousand volunteers get involved, so that’s the part that’s exciting for me, is to see all these returning family that do this every year give this as their gift to the community, and we get to see them again, as we get ramped up for the festival and the nine days of the Riverfest. So that’s what I find exciting.

Do you have any personal favorite events at Riverfest?

Well there’s lots of traditional ones. When my kids were little, we always came down for Kidfest, we always loved the Festival of Broadway. That was about their attention span when it came to Broadway musical numbers. I think as an adult, I love the River Run, I love the tradition of it, and now we’ve got the hot air balloons launching over the starting gun and it’s a beautiful race. It’s still Kansas’s biggest road race, so that’s one of my favorites. And then I think after that, it’s the little ones that are traditional. You know, the dodgeball teams fighting it out on a parking lot, and the celebrity egg toss. So the kitschy ones are the ones that I step back and say “Hey, this is uniquely Riverfest.”

Riverfest has been running since the 70’s, and there are a lot of events that have come and gone. What are some of the most requested events to be brought back?

Oh, great question. So, the bed races, Bedlam 500, and the bathtub races are the ones we hear about. Now on one hand, the world has changed since you could shove hospital beds down a road with no insurance. On the other hand, one of the races a lot of people ask for, the raft races, we’ve brought back, but we need more people to get in and build their raft, so we do find that folks would rather do something quick and throw it together rather than something that you kind of have to plan for for months, so we’re trying to offer some of those old events renewed in a way that people will actually participate in. Like, for example, the cardboard regatta. You don’t have to spend weeks building a raft or dressing up a bathtub. You can come out and in 90 minutes, you and some friends, you get a stack of cardboard, a couple of pool noodles, all the duct tape you need, and you build a craft that one of your teammates has to sail in. So, in a couple hours, you have a lot of fun and see who sinks the most spectacularly, or who wins the race, so it’s kind of fun.

So what are some strengths of the Wichita community that make Riverfest possible?

Well really, this festival is unique. We’re one of the top events worldwide in terms of size, and that’s something to be proud of, but we really do it our way. It is truly by the community for the community, so we have almost 250 partners that provide funds, they help plan events, and then all of those six thousand volunteers really consider this their gift to the community, their gift to their neighbors, and to outside visitors. So we can put it together in a way that, with just a $10 button, remains really affordable, unlike other music fests that will be like a sixty dollar or a 200 dollar ticket, you can come see all of our concerts and performances just for $10 because of how this community supports it. The attendees actually foot less than 30 percent of the bill, so that helps keep it accessible to everyone.

What is your response to people who complain about a $10 button price?

Well, we’ve actually been really surprised that over the last two years, I mean clearly there’ll be some folks that the change is jarring, but more and more we hear that if we’re going to bring them events that they really value, $10 works just fine. If we’re going to create a safe and secure environment that they and their kids and their neighbors can feel comfortable in, $10 is a worthy price to pay. For example, last year, the first year that the buttons went up to $10, we sold 10,000 buttons on the last day alone. WE were still selling buttons at 9:30 that night. So clearly, folks valued that Capital Federal fireworks display or that last concert and the $10 wasn’t a barrier because they really wanted to be there.

What is the potential growth of Riverfest over the next five years?

Well, I think this is the community’s signature event, and it can go every direction that the community wants it to. We continue to build the arts and culture cred with art installations, visiting artists and activity by local cultural groups. We want to keep doing more of that. I think the concerts and entertainment can continue to grow, if people support it by buying buttons and participating, and the greatest events that have come to the festival over the years is because people brought them there. They said “Hey! We’re a local horseshoes club, let’s bring a horseshoes tournament to Riverfest.” So more and more of that happens over the next few years and we may have events and activities that no one’s event thinking of right now.

What kind of things would you like people to know about Riverfest?

I think the importance of our volunteer force is huge. When you see that person selling a button or selling you food court tickets, or greeting you at the gate, that’s a volunteer. And you see the folks that are setting up the stages, helping the kids performers out, those are all volunteers. It’s their gift to the community, and I think if folks understand that piece of how this is hosted, by folks giving their heart, that’s a really important part of our festival and the 45 year tradition.

Ashley Aulbach

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