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Growth spurt for arts fest holds promise

Growing pains are old hat for the Mahoning Valley’s signature arts and cultural festival.

Ever since the Youngstown State University Summer Festival of the Arts had its roots in the Walk on Wick street fair in the early 1980s, growth has been its watchword year after year after year. By the late 1990s, when the walk along Wick Avenue was bursting at its seams with thousands of visitors and participants, the YSU summer fest naturally took root and blossomed beautifully and rapidly.

Tens of thousands of arts lovers and festival fanatics have converged onto campus over the past two decades to savor the sights, sounds and smells of about 80 artist exhibitions, cuisine from all corners of the earth as well as dozens of top-notch musical, dance and theatrical performances — all free of charge as a gift to the Mahoning Valley.

Given that history of growth and maturity, the announcement last week that the Summer Festival of the Arts, or SFA, will move yet again into a much more expansive space for its 23rd go-round should come as no great shock. The pending move does, however, come with great expectations for an even bigger and better experience for all when SFA rolls out July 17 and 18.

YSU President Jim Tressel announced the 2021 festival will unfold this summer at the Raymond John Wean Foundation Park between the Covelli Centre and Youngstown Foundation Amphitheater in the heart of the growing hubbub of downtown.

“We’re excited to bring this nationally recognized annual event to this new community park along the Mahoning River,” Tressel said, adding, “We’re hopeful this move will help further grow the festival, and it will also help introduce the community to this beautiful new downtown recreation area.”

Lori Factor, director of community engagement and events for YSU’s Cliffe College of Creative Arts and longtime revered ringmaster of the SFA, shares Tressel’s enthusiasm.

“We’re very excited to continue our wonderful relationship with the city and expand the arts to as many people as possible,” she told The Vindicator.

Toward that end, we hope YSU, city officials and other partners in the event, spare no energies toward working to ensure that many of the most crowd-pleasing features from SFA over the years get transplanted easily into the new park area on the banks of the Mahoning. These include the ethnic food-filled Festival of Nations, the Artists’ Marketplace, the children’s art center and open-air mini-performances from some of the region’s most talented musical, dance and theatre groups and troupes.

In addition, here’s hoping additional events tied to the SFA return as well. Those include a jazz festival, gospel festival at the amphitheater, as well as other special events in the downtown / YSU district that have included a Greek church festival, featured attractions at nearby museums and sky shows at the YSU Planetarium.

Planning for this year’s fest, however, has been a bit more fuzzy than in many previous years. That’s due in large part to the lingering elephant in the room — the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the fest for the first time in its history in 2020.

Though signs of the virus weakening in its virility continue to mount locally, statewide and nationally, this fickle plague has proved time and time again that there can be no guarantees that the coast will be clear by mid-July for large crowds of people to safely congregate relatively close to one another.

That’s yet another reason why the expansive 20-acre Wean Park and nearby Huntington Bank Community Alley make perfectly good sense to locate the epicenter of this year’s festival. More open-air space spells more protection.

The coming-together of YSU with the city of Youngstown demonstrates once again the value of town-gown cooperation in bettering the city.

As Youngstown shows off its newest recreation area and as the festival unveils the latest incarnation of itself four months from now, we’re confident that one constant over the 23 years-plus of summertime arts celebrations in Youngstown will endure: A potpourri of arts and entertainment gems will continue to please attendees of all ages.

editorial@tribtoday.com

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