In this past week’s issue of the Morrison County Record (May 25, 2008), Vince Meyer reported that the board of the Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau “voted not to organize the annual Little Falls Dam Festival in 2009.” (Sorry, I’d link to the article, but can’t find it on the Record’s website.)

The reasons, as cited by the article, are that “it’s getting harder to raise the money and get the volunteers needed to run the festival.” How can this be a surprise to anyone? With the structure of today’s society, all activities that were traditionally run by volunteers are suffering from a lack of them. Women, who used to be the basis of volunteer activities, have been in the workforce for decades now. When families need two incomes to survive, there’s not much time left over to devote to a cause. We can’t depend upon Baby Boomers to pick up on volunteer activities, either, because they have other plans for their retirement years.

The reality is that community events such as the Little Falls Dam Festival take too much human energy when held year after year. There aren’t enough volunteers available to keep up the excitement needed to mount such events. Burnout is a sure thing.

Rather than ask whether Little Falls should keep its Dam Festival, as the Morrison County Record is doing in this week’s online poll, I think the important question we should be asking is, “Do we really need a festival in order to create a sense of community?”

Before we can answer that, we have to define “community.” One part of that definition has got to include geography. In this particular case, the geographical boundary is the city of Little Falls. It could just as easily be a different city in the county, or Morrison County itself. When people define themselves through the lens of community, however, there’s more to it than simple geography. When they’re willing to claim a community, it’s because they feel that they belong in that community, that they are connected to others within the community. While a sense of belonging is not as solid or definitive as geography, it has more effect on how individuals will participate in the life of their community. If people don’t feel that connection, they’re not going to contribute to their geographic community.

How, then, do we foster a sense of belonging and connectedness among individuals in a community? Do community festivals do it? Are they the best way to do it?  Let’s examine the ginormous Arts & Crafts Fair that Little Falls hosts every September, shall we?  By size, it’s the festival of all festivals, attracting thousands of people to the area.  The Little Falls Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the festival, says that it’s one of the nation’s largest arts and crafts fairs.  If festivals create a sense of community, the Little Falls Arts & Crafts Fair should cause a spirit of community so large and bright that it radiates into the sky and hangs over the city like the Star of Bethlehem.  That’s not what happens though.  Because the purpose of the Fair is to bring visitors into the city to purchase items from primarily outside vendors, it doesn’t do a whole lot for connecting local residents to each other.  Well, perhaps it does in one way.  Many residents are connected by their collective loathing of the Arts & Crafts Fair because they feel pushed out of their own town by the activity.  I’m not sure that collective loathing is what festival organizers hope to accomplish in their attempts to create a sense of community.

I think there are easier ways to create community.  They’re not splashy, but they’re effective.  The goal in achieving that cherished sense of belonging in residents is to get them personally connected to and interacting with each other on a regular basis.  Groups organized around people’s hobbies are a great way to foster community.  Whether it’s gardening or quilting or dog training or writing or fishing (don’t ask this fish to join in that activity) or the arts or hockey or riding motorcycle, these small informal groups allow for deep connections that lead to community.  Local publications, like the Morrison County Record, Initiative Quarterly, (ahem!) Fish Wrap, and organizational newsletters create community by keeping people informed and giving them something to talk about.  Little Falls is fortunate to have large swaths of the Mississippi River flanked by public parks, which give people natural places to congregate.  The city also has plenty of attractions that enhance civic pride, provide more places to congregate, and also give people something to talk about.  And when it comes to socializing, where better to do that in one of our local businesses?  (And I’m including Wal-Mart and Coborn’s in this mix, along with the beauty shops, restaurants, hardware stores, gas stations, and etc.)  Anywhere that people can interact, either with other customers or the staff of an organization, is a chance to build community.

Of course, festival organizers are merely trying to give locals another opportunity to get together, but the point is that a festival doesn’t have to be the ‘be-all, end-all’ event responsible for creating community.   Instead, look at all the manageable events already being hosted by the many organizations in Little Falls.  There are continual sporting events, plus a multitude of offerings through the Great River Arts Association, Community Services, and the Extension Office.  All of the attractions have events planned throughout the year.  In addition, there are events like the prom, high school graduation, school concerts and plays, church suppers and sales, and Relay for Life that get people involved.  With all of this going on, is it any wonder that volunteers can’t be drummed up for the Dam Festival?

Rather than be sad or upset that the Dam Festival is leaving the scene, why not rejoice in the fact that we have one less resource-draining event to keep track of?  Why not put the energy of organizing the Dam Festival into one of the many other means of creating community?  Little Falls has got it going on.  Let’s enhance what’s already here and bring those on the fringes into the circle of belonging.

Come on in!  The water’s fine!

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

P.S.  I didn’t even touch all the online communing our locals are doing through the likes of Facebook and MySpace.  The Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau might be surprised . . . .

P.S.2 – Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem was quoted in the Record article as saying that, “Some people don’t know the difference between ‘dam’ and ‘damn,’ in reference to the name Dam Festival.  This fish gets the joke.  For those of you who don’t, it’s a play on words and it’s supposed to be intentionally misleading.  (“Oh, my goodness!  Is that person swearing?  Oh, they’re going to Hell for sure!  Tsk, tsk.”)  Live a little, people.  How would you feel about having a Testicle Festival?