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Suwanee Day: 'Like a one-day county fair'

The drumline from North Gwinnett's Bulldog Band got the crowd dancing as they beat out a strong cadence at the Suwanee Day Parade on Sept. 17.

The drumline from North Gwinnett's Bulldog Band got the crowd dancing as they beat out a strong cadence at the Suwanee Day Parade on Sept. 17.

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SUWANEE -- If Suwanee residents care for the weather report halfway around the world, they could check in with the city's events coordinator leading up to Saturday's Suwanee Day.

"There are no new tropical storms off of the coast of Africa, so we should be in good shape," said Amy Doherty, who begins to track weather two weeks before Suwanee Day.

It's Doherty who spearheads a small army of city staff, a planning committee and hundreds of volunteers who began preparing for this week's 29th annual Suwanee Day 51 weeks ago, or during last year's festival the city calls a celebration of community.

"Events like these are important community events because they create collective memories," city manager Marty Allen said. "Our Suwanee Day committee improves every year."

The constant challenge is how to improve on the previous year, but it will be tough to top last year's 68-degree weather and 50,000 attendees to the arts and crafts festival, the most ever.

But they'll try when the parade begins at 9 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, when the bands from North Gwinnett High and Peachtree Ridge High, and the North Gwinnett Middle School Orchestra perform.

The decision to move the parade up came at the end of last year's festival, Doherty said, and gives attendees more time to shop at the more than 200 vendors on hand.

"When you think you've got the perfect event is when your event will continue to get stale," said Doherty, who joined the city staff after she served as volunteer chair for Suwanee Day in 2005. "Look for a way to make it fun or to commit a new memory."

Already Doherty is considering how to use the lawn behind City Hall, and has openly brainstormed about a first-time artists alley, or a kids area possibly next year.

One thing that remains constant is the festival has been the third Saturday in September since 1990. It previously was held in May, but several rainy years and warmer weather caused organizers to move the date.

Along with the growth of the city, festival organizers have said its residents are increasingly more diverse. Over the years, the festival has had performers that ranged from belly dancers, to a Mexican dancing group, to a group from the Andes that played wind pipes.

"By showcasing their culture you're establishing them in the community," Suwanee Day committee entertainment chair Cris Koenigs said. "They live here. They are our community."

The festival began in 1984 as a way for city residents to show off the growing town to new neighbors. In 1995, the festival moved from Buford Highway to Old Town, but has been at Town Center since 2004.

Allen said he recalls in his early days working for the city that he was tasked with riding a bicycle along the railroad tracks in Old Town to keep kids off the tracks. Now, the parade route is larger, and a tunnel below the railroad makes it easier to move about without crossing the railroad.

Through the years, the festival, which began before the city's first traffic light, has endured a two-hour delay because of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and came four days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. That year also recorded the largest turnout to date: 10,000 people.

Suwanee Police Capt. Cass Mooney has worked every Suwanee Day except two -- when his children were born -- since 1997. Mooney said the key to a successful festival is preparation.

Suwanee Police begin with a canned preparation model, and adapt it to that year's Suwanee Day committee.

"The main thing is just the planning," Mooney said. "We have everything scheduled down to the minute so we have an idea, but nothing ever goes as planned so we have to be flexible."

To prepare for all types of weather and seemingly new record crowd turnouts, Doherty meets often with Public Works Director Scott Moretz, who turns his staff of 27 into all-hands-on-deck mode to make sure the city is in pristine condition. And Moretz' crew is limited leading up to the big day because of the Labor Day holiday.

"The week before Suwanee Day is even more crucial," Moretz said. "We have to have everything manicured and ready to go, so (this) week is just the finishing touches."

Doherty and Moretz review a weekly checklist, and make joint decisions on things such as where to place the ATM, the main trash Dumpster and figuring out where to put dozens of directional signs.

As Doherty and Moretz plan the blueprint for a successful festival, they remember a recent survey of attendees that said many people have only come to Suwanee Day for a couple years.

"So I don't want them to come for four years and say, 'I've seen Suwanee Day, I know what it's about," Doherty said. "I want them to come and say, 'That's new, that's different, I haven't seen that before.'"

One addition this year is a 'Man Land' on a closed-off Town Center Avenue where men can gather on sofas to watch television.

"We're not doing the same Suwanee Day that we did in 2005," Doherty said.

The self-sustaining event, which costs $75,000 to put on, Doherty said, and counts a record 40 sponsors, also has 200 volunteers.

All those moving parts, and logistical choreography causes Doherty and Moretz to be exhausted after eating lunch at 2 p.m., and ushering out the last vendors as the stage is ready for the headline entertainment.

"It's like a one-day county fair," Moretz said. "It is hard work, but it's fun."

Comments

Joyfulstamper 1 year, 10 months ago

For me, it will only seem like a "one-day county fair" until noon time....when the vendors can start selling beer. I don't see it as being quite so "family friendly" then. I know some folks are lovin' it....but I'm sad to see this new change.

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