Hard as it may be to believe given the immense popularity of the 16-year-old annual event, the second VillageFest celebration was almost canceled before the first one had even taken place.
The year was 1997, and Diana Ewy Sharp and friend Trinda Elsloo had pitched the idea of a Fourth of July celebration to Mayor Monroe Taliaferro and the city council after the success of the city’s 45th anniversary parade the previous year.
“The tradition had been that we had these parades every five years,” Ewy Sharp said. “When we saw the crowds at the 45th anniversary parade, I said, ‘Why are we waiting every five years to get the community together for something like this?'”
During budget deliberations the previous year, the council had approved $10,000 for a to-be-determined community event. Ewy Sharp convinced Taliaferro that a Fourth of July celebration would be an excellent use for the allocation, and with his approval, she started to sketch out plans for the inaugural VillageFest. The idea — a free, daytime event focused on kids — was based largely on Ewy Sharp’s memories from the Fourth of July celebrations she attended as a child in Long Beach, Ind., on the tip of Lake Michigan.
But as the date of the first celebration approached, the city council was deliberating its budget for 1998. Facing tight numbers, they council tentatively voted to axe the $10,000 allocation for 1998 that would be funding the event in 1997.
“That actually really spurred us on,” Ewy Sharp said. “It motivated us to put together something that would be a big bang, because we basically wanted to make this so successful that they would have no choice but to reinstate the funding for the next year.”
And a big bang it was. Despite concerns from some council members that so many people would be out of town over the holiday that the event would be a ghost town, more than 5,000 people attended — as did members of the media, whose positive coverage was hard to ignore.
Shortly after the success of the inaugural VillageFest, the council voted to reinstate funding for the event in 1998 — and when a council seat opened up in Ward 6, Taliaferro asked Ewy Sharp to fill it, starting her 15 year run as a city councilor.
VillageFest hasn’t changed much since that first year, Ewy Sharp says — and she thinks that’s a good thing.
“I’ve always thought that if the formula works, don’t try to fix it,” she said. “Keep it simple: a free event that’s family friendly. That’s what make it what it is. And it’s so much fun to watch young kids making the kinds of great memories that I have from the Fourth when I was a kid.”