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Ann Arbor Summer Festival builds community connections

Abby Kirn/Daily
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By Hillary Crawford, Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 18, 2014

Summer has officially arrived in Ann Arbor.

The Ann Arbor Summer Festival, a yearly tradition in the city compromised of both ticketed performances and free outdoor attractions, held its kick-off event Friday, June 13 and will continue until July with a diverse assortment of events scheduled for each consecutive night.

The Summer Festival is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and agency of the University that operates year-round. It is responsible for organizing both the outdoor component of the festival, Top of the Park as well as the Mainstage Series, which are the ticketed performances.

Amy Nesbitt, executive director of the Summer Festival, said the organization strives to produce a show that represents the diversity in Ann Arbor through its volunteer board of directors, who play a large role in how the organization operates, what it does, what its mission is, and what it wants to become.

“That board is comprised half of folks who are affiliated with the University and half that are affiliated with the city,” Nesbitt said. “It’s really nice because people are representing different parts of the community and it’s great because there are different voices around the table.”

Top of the Park is primarily known for its array of free outdoor events, which include concerts and nighttime movie screenings at Ingalls Mall in front of Rackham Graduate School. In addition to live entertainment, Top of the Park’s Retreat Series offers yoga lessons taught by local Ann Arbor instructors.

The festival also includes a Library on the Lawn series, which invites people to stop by Ingalls Mall to find out what is available at both the Ann Arbor District Library and the University Libraries, as well as a KidZone, which holds arts and crafts sessions for younger attendees.

For the indoor events, this year’s Mainstage Series includes performers such as Andrew Bird, CAKE, Lily Tomlin and NPR’s Ask Me Another.

The Top of the Park events occur at venues both on and off campus, and Nesbitt said it helps bring together Ann Arbor residents and University students and faculty.

“It contributes, I think, this amazing glue to both university folks and the townies,” Nesbitt added. “Everyone gets together and celebrates the arts and summer and community and the beautiful campus in ways that never happen anywhere else to this degree.”

LSA senior Hannah Smith is bartending at the Festival’s Beverage Garden for the fourth consecutive summer. She said being able to listen to the live music and see people come back year after year makes the job not only enjoyable, but also fun.

“Whoever you are, there’s something for you,” Smith said. “There are definitely regulars and I see a lot of friends from school as well.”

Along with building connections between the city and the University, the Festival’s array of events is also partially a product of its focus on coalition building with local community businesses. Over the years, the festival has made efforts to share resources with local partners so that both the nonprofit and business sector can thrive off of each other, with the business serving as a sponsor of the nonprofit and the nonprofit offering positive publicity for the business.

University alum Charlie Waterhouse, a longtime Ann Arbor resident, comes to the Festival each year either with his employer, United Bank and Trust, or with his family. An event held by the local community bank brought him and other colleagues to the beverage garden on Wednesday to host clients for a night of food, drinks and music.

“I’ve been in Ann Arbor for 30 years and it’s one of those events that makes Ann Arbor Ann Arbor,” Waterhouse said. “It’s an eclectic mix of music, it’s community, you see people who you maybe haven’t seen in a while and stop and talk and then there’s culture.”

This year marks the Festival’s 31st season. It will be hosting 140 events altogether and over the three-week period, expects a turnout of about 70,000 people.

“We’ve definitely been trying really hard over the years to make sure everyone feels invited to the party,” Nesbitt said. “It’s so important to get out and enjoy summer—see the fireflies.”


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