Austin, Texas – July 8, 2002 – Nothing brings people together quite like a summer festival in their local park — especially if that festival has some really outstanding barbecue.
That was the premise, in brief, behind the hugely successful Austin ParksFest, a Memorial Day weekend event featuring a barbecue cook-off, athletic events, and live music that pumped an estimated $1.75 million into the local economy. The nonprofit Austin Parks Foundation (APF), the chief organizer, plans to make ParksFest an annual event that will encourage Austinites to get involved in their local parks for years to come.
“We think of it as the beginning of an Austin tradition,” said APF executive director Ted Siff.
The chief venue for ParksFest was downtown’s Auditorium Shores, a park so named because it is situated between Austin’s Town Lake and Palmer Auditorium. The festivities kicked off bright and early at 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 26 with two running events: a 5-kilometer run followed by a 1-kilometer run for kids. By noon, ParksFest was in full swing as the Central Texas BBQ Cook-off got underway and performer Lost Wolf took the stage, the first of seven musical acts. The day’s events culminated with an evening performance by Travis Tritt.
“As you develop more and different kinds of events, like the cook-off, and especially the triathlon and swimming in Town Lake, new users come downtown to this particular park.”
Monday was dedicated exclusively to the Capital of Texas Triathlon, which snaked through downtown Austin and drew over 12,000 spectators. The triathlon crowd was a prime example of the spillover from ParksFest into the downtown area, a major factor in the event’s economic impact. The triathlon also marked the first time in decades that swimming was permitted in Town Lake.
What really set ParksFest apart, according to Siff, was the way it combined a variety of elements to gather people together. People drawn to a particular part of ParksFest often stuck around to enjoy the whole package. “More than half the families that came down participated in one of the running events, then went to the barbecue cook-off area and enjoyed the entertainment, as well as the food, during the afternoon,” said Siff.
Auditorium Shores has long played host to concerts and picnics, but the unique combination of events at ParksFest helped introduce new users to the park. “As you develop more and different kinds of events, like the cook-off, and especially like the triathlon and swimming in Town Lake, new users come downtown and come to this particular park,” said Siff.
“There was quite a bit of relationship development involved. Over the past two years we’ve developed stronger relationships with the parks-oriented business community.”
It should come as no surprise that partnerships played a crucial role in the success of ParksFest. H.E.B., a regional supermarket chain, and RunTex, a footwear franchise, sponsored the barbecue and the athletic events, respectively. Each business had conceived of their event independently, before APF approached them about ParksFest.
“There was a lot of creative thought on each partner’s part,” said Siff, “and the parks department itself said ‘Absolutely, we really need a summer kickoff event.'”
The partnerships didn’t just fall into place overnight, however. Siff found that “quite a bit of relationship development” took place. But he also noted that “the only way things will ever happen is to start developing those relationships. We’re in our ninth year, and over that time we’ve been developing strong relationships with the parks department, and over the past two years we’ve developed stronger relationships with the parks-oriented business community.”
APF plans to expand ParksFest to three days next year. Monday’s early-morning triathlon will be followed by a “community picnic,” with winners of Saturday’s barbecue cook-off supplying the triathletes, their families, and spectators with a delectable finale to the event.
The idea of expanding ParksFest to include the entire city is essential to APF’s long-term plan.
There will also be plenty of new events, including a health and fitness expo, a “rowing regatta” in Town Lake, and a citywide swim meet that will take place in parks throughout Austin. Siff also envisions that “the overarching connector will be the music and kids’ events on all three days.”
Expanding ParksFest to include the entire city is essential to APF’s long-term plan. In addition to various athletic events in city parks, APF will hold a series of park cleanups on the weekends leading up to ParksFest. The weekend events will be modeled after “It’s My Park,” a program created by New York’s Partnerships for Parks.
According to Siff, these preliminary neighborhood park events will get to the heart of what ParksFest is all about: involving Austinites in their local parks. “I think the size of ParksFest as it increases will be important, but even more important will be the additional activities that we build around it.”