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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Merchants & Music Festival: A Fort Thomas Tradition

Bret Michaels played to more than 10,000 people in 2015. Ken Bowman photo.
In 2004, Councilman Ken Bowman, business owner Rick Warner and former Main Street Coordinator Jody Robinson along with the Fort Thomas Renaissance Board came up with a brilliant idea on how to promote local businesses with a musical backdrop.

Being passionate music lovers and business owners, the idea seemed perfect and familiar to Bowman and Warner who was also involved in concert promotion at the time. So, they gave it a go. With much success, the Fort Thomas Merchants & Music Festival, named for the specific focus to promote Fort Thomas businesses, has grown into something spectacular - a free event taking place every September since then.

It all started on the patio of Rick Warner's restaurant, Warners (now 15 North Pizza) when Main Street Fort Thomas shut down for the day. Fort Thomas based businesses and food vendors lined the street while area musicians warmed a crowd of a few thousand before headliners Pure Prairie League  took the stage.

Mike Reilly, Fort Thomas native and founding member of Pure Prairie League helped get the first festival off the ground. Ken Bowman said this would drive traffic to our business district and give us a chance to show everybody what we had to offer. "Big box type stores were hurting the mom and pops and this was our opportunity to fight back," Bowman said. Ken Bowman photo
Firefall preformed the following year with Pure Prairie League returning again in 2006 with the band Poco.

John Waite of the Babys and Bad English played to a packed audience in 2007 in the pouring rain; and in 2008, the event was relocated to the area in front of the Stables Building with The Little River Band headlining.
Pure Prairie League at Warners Restaurant. Ken Bowman photo

In the years that followed, Dave Mason from the band Traffic, Edgar Winter and then The Fabulous Thunderbirds all graced the stage at the Stables location.

Edgar Winter, rock and blues musician who peaked in the 70s with his band, The Edgar Winter Group and widely known for his songs, "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride."
After the amphitheater in Tower Park was complete, Jo Dee Messina was first to take that stage in 2012. A more country lineup followed in 2013 with John Michael Montgomery and Dustin Lynch in 2014.

Each year, local bands like the Bluebirds, Ryan Adcock Band, G. Miles & the Hitmen and other local and smaller national acts played throughout the day before the headliners.

Last year, perhaps one of the most popular and biggest M&M, the city welcomed Bret Michaels of Poison where the biggest crowd in history attended, according to officials.

From the beginning, the idea for M&M was to go for regional draw.

Renaissance Coordinator and Economic Development Director Debbie Buckley said, "We have worked very hard to draw people from outside the city to our businesses. Inviting them to our events was the first step."

This event has grown so much over the years and has brought more exposure to the city as a result.
There are now more vendors and participating businesses; and alcohol sales which only began seven years ago, Buckley attributes to helping to bring larger crowds too. A second stage also was added when the event moved to Tower Park to accommodate the warm-up acts.

"Every year this event brings more and more people to our city. And each year, I have more businesses ask to look at storefronts in the weeks following M&M. They love the energy of Fort Thomas. They love how our city supports businesses. They come back to Art Around Towne and Independence Day. Our businesses have an opportunity to strut their stuff to thousands of people who might never have known they existed before," said Buckley.

Over the years, members of the Renaissance board have changed as well as the chair of the event. Bowman was the chair for the first nine years, then Ashli Slawter. Linda Slone is the current chair.

The planning it takes for an event this size is not a small task either.

"It takes eleven months and more. We literally begin the day after the current year's event. We critique that year and begin the process from top to bottom,"said Buckley.

We listen to our vendors, our volunteers, our musicians, the hired contractors and our board. Of course, we also listen to the city. It is all-consuming in the last three months. This year it took us six months to put together the line-up. There are dozens of volunteers who help us and we would be useless without them. Our sponsors are amazing. They are key to bringing this event year after year."

Bowman added, "The level of details that need to be planned and considered, as well as every "what if" possibility, headliner, staging, PA requirements, lighting, police, fire, vendors, site lay out and on and on. It is a huge undertaking for members of the Renaissance board.

Ideally, we have the next headliner booked by February or March. After that time frame, options are fewer. There is a year round effort by this board around this event, but August and September gets most stressful.

When I was chair, for the first nine years, I would do lots of research using Pollstar and other sources for information. I always started with my extensive music collection and picked favorites that I felt might be affordable and have broad appeal and big draw to the event. The quality of the musicianship was also a criteria that was important to me. We were also very lucky to have a very connected volunteer in Mike Grosser to help guide us in the booking process, and use the clout that comes from working with the same agency that books Paul McCartney and Elton John when they come to town. When an inquiry is made through this agency, we can get the best prices on talent and begin talent shopping knowing they take us seriously right off the bat. The cost varies greatly, but overall bang for the buck spent by the city is tremendous. There is always a big and successful push for sponsorship from private sector that offsets the cost to the city. Some years have been close to revenue neutral."

Mike Grosser is a Fort Thomas native and bass player for G. Miles and the Hitmen and other bands. He works with Nederlander helping to book talent for everything from US Bank Arena to Buckle Up and Bunbury.

"This company is very connected and has more talent buying clout than any. He is willing to donate this connection and help broker the best possible shows at the best possible price," Bowman added.

Bowman added, "I feel that this established and growing festival shines a very positive light on our city and calls attention to the great attributes and amenities that we take for granted. It also seems to provide a reunion opportunity to many that return to attend. You always reconnect with people that you may have lost touch with.

This is always a all inclusive, family type event that tries to please everyone from adults for the music, beer and social aspects to kids that can use the play areas It has evolved and grown in popularity so much that it is now regionally anticipated and has a very large draw from a wider area."

Bret Michaels visited every veteran at the VA Hospital the day he came to town, How awesome! Ken Bowman photo
"This event has made Fort Thomas famous in the tristate," explained Buckley. "I get emails and calls from states as far away as Georgia and Illinois. People look forward to our line-ups. They love visiting us. I am so grateful to our city council who appreciate what this event does for us."

"It's an awesome event that's changed slightly over time as it's grown into something huge with more sponsorship and city support," said Robinson,

The impact supports both quality of life and economic and community development. One of the major goals of the event was to do just that - help people discover all the businesses, beauty, history, opportunities, assets, etc. of an incredible community.

Bringing people together to enjoy the city through events like this create an amazing dynamic. High energy, fun times, creating memories is a positive for residents, businesses and stakeholders.  It also demonstrates the potential of a place to existing and prospective residents, investors, businesses, developers, and customers.You learn as you go and help it take on a life of its own based on feedback and demand. For a number of years after leaving the city I came back and volunteered. It's a great event and it was nice to give back to a community and friend that enriched my life in so many ways."
In 2012, Q102's Katie Walters from Fort Thomas was brought in as the event and music consultant and was part of the team that moved the fest to the amphitheater. She has emceed the event every year since 2012. "The fest is very personal to me. Watching the growth of the fest has been amazing. I am super proud to be part of the success and love the recognition that M& M is bringing to Fort Thomas," Walters said. Ed Cunningham photo

Next years 2017sesquicentennial may be the only thing to interfere with the M&M tradition, but there are plans under way to produce another September event that should be comparable to M&M but not require all the effort from Renaissance Board, since they already have so much on their plate, according to Bowman.

"Our city is incredible. Coming here is like none other. People know they are coming to a safe place. Tower Park is the perfect setting. Kids have a great place. Parents feel good about it. We have a small town feel. We try hard to give the entire Merchants & Music Festival that Fort Thomas extra effort," Buckley concluded.

2016 will mark the 13th annual Merchants & Music Festival on September 24. We will welcome Grammy-nominated Brothers Osborn and The Kentucky Headhunters.

What's your favorite Merchants & Music memory?

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