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Behind the Scenes of the Gaslight Festival

Celebrating 48 Years of Fun

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Jeffersontown’s annual Gaslight Festival began 48 years ago as a small neighborhood street fair when Jack Durrett, a founding member of the Chamber and owner of the old J-town shopping center on Taylorsville Road, decided to put on a half-day community festival. He wanted to do it on Watterson Trail, but the city denied his request, so instead he held it in the parking lot of his shopping center. It was successful enough that the second year the city agreed to close a block of Watterson Trail for the event, which drew a mish-mash of local vendors.

“Basically, anyone in the community who wanted to set up a table could come out and do so,” says Chamber president John Cosby. “The Gaslight Festival has grown organically through the years from a small half-day neighborhood fair into a regional event that attracts a couple hundred thousand attendees as well as 250 vendors from all over the Southeast.”

The eight-day extravaganza is the fourth largest community festival in the Louisville metro area, featuring a parade, poker rally, carnival rides, car show, golf scramble, balloon glow, bounce houses, bowl games, 5K run/walk, arts & crafts fair and more.

“We have a good mix of vendors — everything from hairbow and jewelry makers to wood carvers and air-brushed t-shirt designers,” says Meghan Murphy, the Chamber’s communications director. “On the commercial side, we have lots of local businesses and members of the Chamber.”

Mike Edrington, a resident of Jeffersontown for 60 years and longtime vendor, looks forward to the festival every year, where he has sold homemade Buckeye jewelry since 1975.

“I sell out every year,” says Edrington, though for him it’s more about the connections he makes than the money he brings in. “This festival is like a reunion for me.”

Tie Dye to Go vendor Barb Hawley agrees.

“Many of my high school buds visit and hang out at my booth,” Hawley says. “It’s like a mini-JHS reunion every year.”

Making those happy reunions possible, however, takes a great deal of planning and execution, not to mention time, effort and manpower. With a staff of five people (which includes Cosby, Murphy, Denise Johnson, Katherine Druin and Abigail Costello), managing the many logistics requires forward thinking, backwards planning and substantial recruiting of volunteers. In fact, it takes between 200-300 volunteers to cover the different tasks, which include folding t-shirts, stuffing 5K runner packets, answering phones and handling the mounds of registration forms necessary for the various events.

“We’ve been doing this long enough that we’re a pretty well-oiled machine,” Murphy says. “But that’s not to say we wouldn’t appreciate extra sets of hands — especially in the days and weeks leading up to the festival when we work upwards of 100 hours.”

Cosby agrees, noting that he’s found members of his team asleep on the conference room floor, taking cat naps due to pure exhaustion. The fatigue is not surprising because in addition to all the organizing, planning and scheduling, preparations also require some good, old-fashioned muscle. Given that some events do not take place downtown, throughout the week of the festival, the planning team must transport drinks, signage, tables, chairs and other materials from one location to another.

“We pack stuff up, haul it to one place, tear it down that night, come back and pack up a whole different set of things to haul somewhere else the next day,” Cosby says. “Our team members’ cars are often loaded to the brim.”

After the festival wraps up, the Chamber team meets to debrief and brainstorm ways to improve things for the following year. Vendor applications go out in January. But activity really amps up in the summer when event applications are sent. Then, as the festival dates draw near, the planning intensifies as the team negotiates sponsorship packages, deals and perks.

“These perks wouldn’t happen without the local businesses who sign on to sponsor the festival,” says Murphy, noting that they have a core group of 13 platinum sponsors who typically come back every year. “For example, some of the event registrations include a free meal and a t-shirt. That stuff would not be supplied without the support of our sponsors.”

And then there’s the logo design. For the past 10 years, the Chamber has partnered with the Sullivan College of Technology and Design. Students create logos for the festival and the Chamber team then narrows the selections and picks a final one in May.

“We like that the logo for our community festival is created by local talent,” Murphy says.

Members of the planning team meet with the city, public works, the police and the fire department to ensure the safety of all who participate.

“We have people working round the clock,” Murphy says. For instance, the police patrol the festival grounds during off hours. Public works employees show up at 5 a.m. to spray the streets clean and tidy. Electricians are on hand in case a vendor loses electricity to their booth.

“People don’t see how much planning and discussion goes into the festival to make sure it’s safe and seamless to the participant,” Murphy adds.

Not that there aren’t bumps along the road from time to time, but given the beloved nature of the Gaslight Festival, a great number of folks work diligently to make sure it runs smoothly.

“As we finalize details just prior to kicking off the festival, there’s a lot of list checking, a lot of phone calling and a lot of hair pulling,” Cosby says with a chuckle. “But it’s all worth it to achieve the outcome.”

Cosby knows, firsthand, just how important this local celebration is to those in the community. He learned this lesson the hard way the first year he was put in charge of the event. Mother Nature poured buckets the entire weekend. In fact, it rained so much that a deluge of water ran through the streets of downtown Jeffersontown.

“Nobody showed up all day Saturday — I mean nobody — because the weather was horrendous,” Cosby says. “So, at 6 p.m., I shut it down and sent the vendors home.”

Around 8 p.m., however, the rain stopped so Cosby came back to the festival grounds and his mouth dropped open.

“There were probably 10,000 people walking up and down the street as though the festival was still going on,” Cosby says. “I learned that year not to ever, under any circumstances, shut down the Gaslight Festival because people will come.”

Carolyn Neal Pfister, born and raised in Jeffersontown, has only missed a handful of festivals in her life.

“My family has always owned a business on town square, so I’ve been in the thick of it, either attending or working,” says Pfister, who, for many years worked for the Chamber. “The preparations were exciting and exhausting, but when you are putting together a festival for your hometown, it’s a feeling I just can’t explain. The Gaslight Festival holds a special place in my heart.”

*2017 Gaslight Festival Schedule of Events

Sunday, September 10: Poker Rally

Monday, September 11: Golf Scramble

Tuesday, September 12: 5K Run

Wednesday, September 13: Business Appreciation Day

Wednesday, September 13: Bowl Games

Thursday, September 14: Parade

Friday, September 15: Balloon Glow

Saturday, September 16: Workout Series

Sunday, September 17: Car Show

About Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is an award-winning writer and columnist who writes human interest stories for national, regional, and local magazines. She is also the author of the book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).

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