Thousands came to Sharon to see the burning river

Two things that will always exert a pull on people are water and fire.

The two classical Earth elements have the power to draw folks together, gain their rapt attention, change their mood and even transcend the mundane. They also constitute (in case you couldn’t tell by the name) the simple but effective allure of WaterFire Sharon.

The third and final installment of the new festival in downtown Sharon, Pa., was Saturday. But plans are already in the works for next year because it was such a success.

WaterFire is a curated arts festival that started in Providence, R.I., in 1994 and has since grown into a nonprofit arts organization that licenses it to other cities that apply and are selected by the Providence brain trust.

Cities that have had WaterFire events include Kansas City, Columbus, Singapore, Brussels, Venice and Rome. The cities pay a fee for the rights and must adhere to its requirements.

Sharon is by far the smallest city to ever host one.

At Saturday’s event, the fire, the water and the pleasant autumn evening combined to create a rare mood. The crowd stayed around longer into the night than at the previous two WaterFires.

Jen Barborak is the director of operations of WaterFire Sharon. She gave an unrestrained “absolutely” when asked if WaterFire would return next year. There will still be three lightings, but tentative plans call for moving up the first one to July, instead of August. The other two would come in six-week intervals.

WaterFire in any city is designed to lure people into the downtown to boost business and create a sense of community.

Barborak said it definitely succeeded on those counts. Some stores had their best sales day in years.

The first WaterFire Sharon attracted 30,000 people, and the other two pulled 20,000 apiece.

The committee curates the vendors and entertainers to keep it a cut above the typical street festival. Saturday’s event included local artists, the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, a cirque-style entertainer, an eclectic array of live music and a wine-tasting area.

WaterFire culminates in a ritual involving the lighting of the braziers, and it is something to behold. At 6:45 p.m. last Saturday, perhaps 20 minutes before dusk, the hi-fi loudspeakers that lined the river summoned the faithful with mystical music. One-hundred black-clad devotees then took part in the torch lighting on a long platform on the State Street Bridge. After that, the fire-tenders moved upriver in a boat, lighting the 55 braziers anchored onto the surface of the Shenango, each filled with pine and cedar wood.

It was transfixing.

The effort to bring WaterFire to Sharon was 2 1/2 years in the making. Barborak recalled the meeting in Providence when the applicants were announced. A chuckle was heard when little Sharon’s name was announced, alongside world-class cities such as Rome and Venice.

But it was clear that Sharon was serious, had the setting to pull it off, and — perhaps most importantly — had the most to gain. “In a city like Rome, they would forget it the next day,” said Barborak.

Sharon has the good fortune of having a water feature that is central, accessible and very visible.

In a lot of cities, including Youngstown, the river is hidden. But the Shenango meanders right through the heart of downtown Sharon and is not blocked from view by factories, railroad lines or woods. Walkways line its banks and bridges with wide pedestrian lanes cross it.

So the city was awarded the rights.

Making it happen involved a lot of work, but the committee in Sharon met every challenge.

“At first, there was a lot of back and forth between us and Providence,” said Barborak, “but we were able to present our WaterFire without any officials from Providence on hand.”

More than 300 volunteers rose up to help, a fact that still surprises Barborak.

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