City boards weigh downtown event possibilities

Staff writer

Two patches of green space flanking North Boundary Street could become the next downtown hotspot, according to a presentation from event coordinating company Oak Island Creative at a City Council work session Monday.

The work session was a joint meeting between council, Planning Commission and the Economic Development Authority, where all three boards heard from Scott Gasparich, vice president of creative and strategic development at Oak Island Creative, along with company Retail Development Manager Kim Beck.

The two were brought in by City Manager Andrew Trivette and city Economic Development Director Michelle Mixner DeWitt to showcase ways the city could attract more locals and out-of-towners downtown through a year-round slate of pop-up events in the two grass fields in front of the Williamsburg Community Building and Scotland Street library.

Oak Island Creative has developed holiday-themed installations and events across the country, and works with Busch Gardens to plan and implement its yearly Christmas Town festivities. As a former vice president of entertainment for Busch Gardens, Gasparich said he led the creation of the annual wintertime celebration along with Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream and Food and Wine Festival.

The two pitched the #OnTheBurg event series, which would combine live entertainment, food tastings, workshops, art installations and photo opportunities into a series of 15 themed events spread across each of the four seasons with a focus on collaborating with local vendors and attracting diverse audiences.

“Our objectives for this would be to develop a year of event activations that create elements of surprise while engaging a diverse audience that drives incremental visitation to the city of Williamsburg,” Gasparich said.

Examples of events included a flower-themed spring celebration with poetry readings and artistic floral displays called “Blossom #OnTheBurg”, a Fourth of July block party and a live music and food event called “Boogie #OnTheBurg” in the summer months, along with a harvest festival and art installation in the fall and winter.

“We looked across the board and looked to make sure that there would be something for everybody throughout the year and not just a particular demographic,” he said.

Cost estimates for each of the 15 event concepts shown at the meeting ranged from $85,000 for smaller-scale daytime events without live music and lighting elements, to larger-scale, multi-week installations that were estimated to cost as much as $157,500. The firm estimated the total cost to fund all of the proposed events would be around $1.9 million.

But none of the three boards took a vote to fund the event concepts. Instead, Oak Island Creative will have to go through the newly created Tourism Development Fund Review Committee, Trivette said, which will review funding applications and recommend how City Council should dole out $2.1 million in expected SB 942 tax revenue on new tourism-driving projects in the city.

“We don’t want to use it all for this purpose, obviously, but this seems like an excellent way to test the plan and also achieve the group vision of activation and drawing people into the city,” Trivette said.

Members from all three city boards were enthusiastic about the potential pop-up events had to invigorate the downtown area, but warned against events that are too similar to existing art and music festivals in the city.

“If we’re going to be spending local money on these sorts of projects, they can be fun and edgy and they should be, that’s how you’re going to draw people in, but there should also be a sense that this is still Williamsburg,” said Planning Commission member Justin Shawler.

City Council members agreed the best course of action would be to further develop a handful of the 15 events presented at the meeting, which could be funded and used as a trial to gauge the impact of the event series.

“I could see us trying two, three or four of these within a year as long as they’re all differentiated enough that we can get a sense of how they appeal to different demographics,” said Mayor Paul Freiling.

Following the input gathered at Monday’s work session, Oak Island representatives will develop a selection of the proposed pop-up events into formalized funding applications to be submitted to the Tourism Development Fund Review Committee for review in March. The committee will present a recommended funding plan to City Council for approval this October.

“Williamsburg is a destination, and we know lots of people want to come here, but maybe they’ve already been here and done that, so what we need to do is offer other reasons for them to return and re-build the brand in a different way that they’re familiar with,” said Vice-Mayor Doug Pons.

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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