VegMichigan Free Festival visits downtown Farmington's Riley Park

If you passed by downtown Farmington’s Riley Park on Sunday and spotted white tents, food trucks, and entertainers, you may have done a double-take and thought, “Wait … wasn’t the farmers’ market yesterday?”


It was, but the vibe of Sunday’s all-afternoon VegMichigan Free Festival had the same kind of energy and communal warmth.


With a variety of vegan-friendly vendors, a kids’ activity area, long tables set up under the pavilion (where attendees could sit and sample the vegan food on offer), and live music from Sinjon Smith, the festival drew a pretty big crowd, despite some raindrops.

VegMichigan Free Festival


“(My daughter) and my 10-year-old were mesmerized by (Clark the Juggler), who was quite the entertainer,” Farmington Hills resident Kristin Dwyer says. “They cuddled under the clouds watching, laughing, and talking. My son was even 45 minutes late to a play date because he didn’t want to leave the scene.”


This is the first year that downtown Farmington has played host to the four-year-old event, which previously called Livonia’s Madonna University home. Construction on Madonna’s campus this year necessitated a change of locale for the festival (which used to be scheduled in August and was then called VegMichigan SummerFest).


“We did a search,” says VegMichigan president Tom Progar. “When we looked at Riley Park, we just thought it was the perfect venue.”


Why? Because of the lawn space, the pavilion, the free parking, and its location in the heart of town.


“We really wanted to have a festival that’s inviting to the general public,” Progar says. “Madonna was more of a destination event, where you had to hear about it to seek it out. But being in a downtown – there’s already a lot of people just milling around who might see something happening and stop by the festival to check it out. That allows us to bring in some people who might not normally come.”


Plus, a handful of Farmington businesses (Neu Kombucha, Chive, Fresh Thyme Market, The Cheese Lady, etc.) had previously established a good working relationship with VegMichigan.


“They support us, so this is an opportunity for us to help them promote their businesses,” Progar says.


Some might be surprised to see The Cheese Lady on this list, but on Sunday, the store’s tent showcased both non-cheese-related items (chocolate, crackers, etc.) and a handful of vegan cheese options.


“This is a great chance for us to highlight the things we carry that aren’t dairy-based,” said Cheese Lady store manager Kyle Tackett. “ … And since we’re located right next to (vegan restaurant) Chive, it just makes sense for us to reach out to their market, too, and let them know what we have to offer.”

VegMichigan Free Festival


Farmington’s Riley Park and Sundquist Pavilion, since they opened in 2005, have become the go-to place for beloved local events like the farmers’ market (on Saturdays), outdoor summer concerts, and Swing Farmington’s dance parties on Thursday nights.


But the downtown space’s potential for playing host to events born outside of Farmington’s borders (like the VegMichigan Free Festival) appears to be gaining traction.


“We did envision both city-related entities and outside groups making use of Riley Park when it was conceived of,” says Farmington Mayor (and architect) Steven Schneemann, who was part of Riley’s Park’s planning commission. “ … The different ways in which it is being used today (e.g., VegMichigan Free Festival, Haitian fest, etc.) is all part of the hoped-for utilization of the facility. … I believe that design can help or hinder the intentions of a community; that is why it is so important that we get it right!”

VegMichigan Free Festival


If VegMichigan’s reported experience is any indicator, Farmington is on the right track. Though the nonprofit organization’s Free Festival move was born of necessity this year, Progar voiced his hope that Farmington would, from now on, be its home.


“Definitely,” says Progar. “We can’t know for sure yet, but working with the City of Farmington has been wonderful. Everyone’s been really helpful, and the location is perfect. … Hopefully, we’ll continue to have (the Free Festival) in downtown Farmington. That would really be the best-case scenario.”

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