It has survived violent thunderstorms, public safety scares, droughts and decades of staff changes.
But as Denver’s longest continually running arts and culture festival enters its 46th year with retooled programming and a slick new behind-the-scenes producer, the biggest challenge for the People’s Fair might just be the city it calls home.
“There’s a lot more competition and a lot more going on for people than there was back in those days,” said—Andrea Furness, event director at Team Player Productions, of the People’s Fair’s late-’90s and early 2000s attendance pinnacle, when it drew an estimated 350,000 people over two days in June. “That’s part of the decline from that time period to now, really largely based on how the city has changed.”
Despite the sharp—increase in arts and entertainment options in Denver in recent years, organizers of this year’s People’s Fair still expect 150,000-200,000 visitors to flock to Civic Center park June 3-4.
Nearly 100 fine artists, 27 food vendors, 98 crafters and small businesses, and 49 nonprofits will gather at Civic Center, a location that has been closely associated with the People’s Fair since it moved there 30 years ago.
The free People’s Fair is one of the only—large-scale festivals in central Denver not defined by a holiday weekend, corporate title sponsorship or other specific theme. And along with Labor Day weekend’s A Taste of Colorado and a few others, it’s still one of Denver’s biggest public gatherings.
That’s all the more impressive considering the People’s Fair’s identity is anchored to community vendors, nonprofits, kid-friendly carnival attractions and a mostly local mix of live entertainment, from the Dazzling Divas drag show and Colorado Mestizo Dancers to musical acts such as La Pompe Jazz, SF1, Kayla Marque, Gasoline Lollipops—and June 3 headliner Guster (OK, so that last one is a national act).
“That’s something brand new for us,” Furness said of the national music presence, which includes Night Riots and a closing-day collaboration between members of Gipsy Moon, Leftover Salmon and the Infamous Stringdusters.
The People’s Fair is also an event some residents love to hate, given the street closures, parking squeeze and other traffic-and-noise disruptions. A—giant-turkey-leg gathering, as some have called it, and one without much purpose.
That’s a misconception, said Furness, who has worked on the People’s Fair for the last 11 years, first with longtime event producer Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN) and now with Team Player Productions.
“I would say to give it a chance, come down and walk through it first,” said Furness, citing the juried fine art show, which takes over 14th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock Street, as an example of something unusual and valuable about the festival.
Team Player, a Denver-based company that runs numerous music and cultural festivals, athletic races, corporate events and tours in Colorado and Utah, purchased the rights to the People’s Fair for $1 in October, while CHUN reorganized itself into an all-volunteer organization.
“I have mixed emotions,” Roger Armstrong, executive director of CHUN and director of the People’s Fair, told The Denver Post in January as he prepared to leave the nonprofit due to budgetary constraints. “It’s hard to let go of an event you helped produce for two decades.”
The 2017 budget for the People’s Fair is $360,000, down about $10,000 from 2016, while anticipated revenue for this year is $100,000. That’s up from $87,000 in 2016, but Team Player still needs to fill the gap with corporate sponsorships and vendor-booth fees, which have long kept the People’s Fair afloat.
CHUN remains the nonprofit beneficiary and permit-holder with the city of Denver, while Team Player is the official event producer.
“They’re still very much involved,” Furness said of CHUN, noting the 200-300 on-site volunteers the organization will attract this year to the fair. “The partnership really is enabling CHUN to focus on their mission of the neighborhood work that they do (including historic preservation, community advocacy and neighborhood improvement), but not have the financial risk, which is challenging for nonprofits.”
In that sense, the People’s Fair remains closely aligned with the neighborhood that birthed it, continuing its history of reflecting broader public concerns in Denver.
There was the—time, in 2003, that the city considered booting it out of Civic Center due to a drought ruining the area’s fragile grass. There have been semi-annual public calls for safety checks, given that the centrally located Civic Center has long held a reputation as a homeless hangout and open-air drug market. And, of course, early-summer thunderstorms occasionally chase people out of the park just when the vendors most need them.
None of that has dulled the core appeal of the fair.—CHUN started producing it 1974, but the event really began as a community gathering staged by the Capitol Hill—Police Storefront at—Morey Middle School in 1972, where it drew a surprise crowd of 2,000 people. Due to its growth, it moved within five years to the parking lot at East High School before settling at Civic Center in 1987.
“It’s still very much a community event,” Furness said, noting that the names of the live performance stages and various booth placards will represent different central-Denver neighborhoods, while the bars will serve local beer (Great Divide) and wine (Infinite Monkey Theorem) along with Denver-inspired craft cocktails.
“It will probably look similar, with a little bit of a facelift on the entertainment as the most noticeable element. But it’s still benefiting, and focused on, the community.”
46th ANNUAL PEOPLE’S FAIR. Community vendors, carnival, food, live entertainment and more. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. June 3 and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. June 4 at Civic Center park, Broadway and Colfax Avenue. Free admission. $20 VIP passes include private bar, shaded seating and viewing areas. 303-777-6887 or peoplesfair.com.