The Old Port Festival has always been about getting people to come see what’s happening downtown.
If you think of it that way, this year’s expanded Old Port Festival Weekend makes a lot of sense. Instead of just throwing a party in the small Old Port area on Sunday, the festival weekend will feature a wider variety of free events to showcase different parts of downtown Portland.
These will include the city’s already successful First Friday Art Walk, a new event called Walk the Working Waterfront on Saturday and the traditional Old Port Festival blend of music, food and amusements on Sunday.
So if six stages of free musical performances on Sunday doesn’t entice someone to come downtown and see all the shops and restaurants, maybe a chance to see the giant lobster tanks at New Meadows Lobster or to try on a scuba diving outfit at Aqua Diving Academy on Saturday will.
Other new features this year designed to bring crowds to more corners of downtown include a 90-foot-high gondola ride operating all weekend off Commercial Street, and circus performances put on by the Portland-based Circus Conservatory of America in Monument Square Friday evening and in Lincoln Park Saturday afternoon.
“We’re trying to make it more of a destination event and to broaden the scope to focus on all of Portland’s downtown, not just one area,” said Steve Hewins, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, the merchants group that runs the Old Port Festival. “This will focus on other parts of the city, and other things the city has to offer, including the arts and the working waterfront.”
The Old Port Festival began in 1974 as a way to bring people to the Old Port. At the time, the goal was just to get people into the area, which was seen as dilapidated by many and dangerous by some. But the artists and shop owners who were doing business in the neighborhood thought people would start coming if they had a reason to come down and see what the area had to offer. A festival with free entertainment was organized to be that reason.
The festival grew as the area changed into a tourist mecca, known for fine dining, specialty shops and well-maintained Victorian architecture.
The event’s growth was part of the impetus for the expanded festival weekend, Hewins said. Some years it draws more than 30,000 people, for six hours and in an area only several blocks wide. Organizers think the festival’s reputation for crowds in a small area might have kept some folks away.
THE FIRST FRIDAY ART WALK, which draws thousands of people downtown on its own, will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Galleries, museums and other businesses will be open, vendors and artists will fill the sidewalks along Congress Street for several blocks. Congress Street will be closed to vehicles from Monument Square to Longfellow Square from 6 to 8 p.m.
Then on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., people will be encouraged to walk around the city’s waterfront and onto piers and wharves, many of which are not usually open to the public. People can look for orange balloons to signal places where they can poke their heads in and see what goes on when the waterfront is working.
For example, the 28-foot Casco Baykeeper environmental boat will welcome people on board for tours at Union Wharf. The boat is used by Friends of Casco Bay to monitor the health of the bay.
At Aqua Diving Academy near Hobson’s Wharf, visitors can try on scuba gear and take pictures. New Meadows Lobster on Portland Pier invites people in to see their giant lobster tanks.
At the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, researchers will be on hand to show off some fancy fishing and research equipment.
“The pier and wharf owners have been wanting to find a way to get more people to see what goes on there, to understand what they’re doing,” said John Spritz, director of Growing Portland, an economic development group that has helped organize the working waterfront event.
Hewins thinks the local food movement might be a reason for people to want to see the working waterfront. While farm to table is all the rage right now, the business owners on the waterfront like to say they’re part of a trawler to table movement, Hewins said.
For people who have been to the Old Port Festival before, Sunday will look the same as most years. It starts with a parade down Exchange Street at 11 a.m. There will then be six stages of entertainment around the Old Port. National acts include the rock group Los Lonely Boys, former “American Idol” winner Lee DeWyze, and up and coming British pop singer Katy Tiz, whose song “The Big Bang” is hot on the radio right now.
Other stages will include nationally known country acts Maggie Rose and Frankie Ballard. Well known local performers will include country rockers The Mallett Brothers Band, rapper Spose, singers Amy Allen and Anna Lombard, and country band North of Nashville. (See a complete music schedule, as well as maps and other information, in the pull-out section inside today’s magazine.)
There will be nearly 40 performances – all for free. Children’s entertainment will happen in Post Office Park, and there will be children’s rides along Federal Street.
This year’s music lineup features more national acts than some years, but that might be just coincidence. Most of the stages are booked by local radio stations, who see the festival as an opportunity to gain recognition.
“The Old Port Festival is one of Coast’s most important events of the year, so we try to line up the best entertainment we can provide,” said Randi Kirshbaum, program manager at Coast 93.1 FM. “We work with the record labels to see who might be available on that date and go from there.”