By Jim Hagerty
DOWNTOWN — The Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Stroll on State holiday festival could be expanded to two days.
But not anytime soon.
That is because organizers are working with an already growing event that has swelled to an estimated 82,000-person festival in just five years, and there is no need to add an extra day.
But the festival is expanding. It now spans 15 blocks, includes a 5K and a re-imagined parade, all of which has comfortably attracted thousands more spectators. It has also come with challenges that could become full-blown problems if Stroll was spread over two days before it’s organically ready.
“This is a volunteer-driven and volunteer-run event,” RACVB CEO John Groh said. “So adding days would be significantly adding to the need of running it with a volunteer labor pool.”
And even while there are no direct labor costs associated with hiring volunteers, things like utilities, entertainment, marketing and security all cost money. A two-day event would come with expenses that could threaten the event as a free family weekend that helps Rockford kick off the holiday season.
“When you add days, you significantly add costs of operation,” Groh said. “We are extremely protective of the (holiday) feel of the event.”
This year saw plenty of feel with additions alone. Around 1,000 people participated in the Dasher Dash 5K, the parade included more floats and there were several live TV broadcasts during the extended five-hour festival. The 7,278 people who rode the park-and-ride shuttles and 4,200 children who visited Santa Claus were part of a 10-percent overall increase from 2016.
There was also more live music, an additional SantaLand location and more vendors, all things Groh said were carefully planned for.
“We are looking at expansion through improvement and what we can add to the day,” Groh said.
In future years, Stroll on State could be expanded into the BMO Harris Bank Center and other downtown locations to preserve what Groh said is the majesty of a one-day festival. He also addressed the attendance estimate, which his office reported as approximately 82,500 and some have questioned.
“It’s a big downtown,” Groh said. “The primary influence of the attendance number is the Rockford Police Department spotters who look at crowd size throughout the event and what’s happening on the perimeter, and anything we can count.”
Police commonly use the Jacobs Method to determine crowd size–dividing an occupied area into sections, counting an average number of people in each section, and multiplying by the number of sections occupied.
Groh said actual attendance could be above or below the reported estimate, but feels confident with what they’ve counted and the methodology used to arrive at that figure. And while he said the RACVB has no plans to charge a Stroll on State admission, he said other events that do so rely less on rough figures.
“For events where they sell tickets–a gate, it is very easy to count,” he said. “Stroll on State is free to attend and you can come in from all areas of town all day long.”
Stroll on State is Rockford’s largest downtown event. It began in 2013, more than a year after On the Waterfront ceased operations after 27 years, many as Illinois’ largest outdoor music festival.
Stroll grabbed the Illinois Bureau of Tourism’s Best in Show award for its 2014 celebration that attracted an estimated 60,000 people. R.