Taste of Kalamazoo, Island Fest change hands

Blame Uganda.

After being a major part of Kalamazoo's summer festival season for 29 years, Wayne Deering has sold Taste of Kalamazoo to Townsquare Media. He has also passed the Kalamazoo Island Festival to newly-created Island Festival Management, LLC.

Daughter/Taste manager Emily Deering writes from Uganda, "Everything runs its course, and the Deering family has decided that we've fulfilled our festival duty with the Taste."

She left this year to be a volunteer coordinator with Pangea Educational Development, which caused her father to make a decision he's been mulling over for a while.

Losing his daughter's help is "one of the reasons," Deering says. The other: "I'm not 35!" 

Now 63, Deering intends to focus on his main work as a commercial real estate broker. His year-round work on Taste, from booking music acts to deciding what vendors to include, "starts to take away time for your other job -- the other stuff I do.... (My) income-producing activity certainly suffers every year, as I have to take my eye off of that."

Townsquare Media owns radio, digital and live event properties in 66 US markets. They own Kalamazoo's 103.3 WKFR, 107.7 WRKR, 1360 WKMI and Kalamazoo's Country 102.5, and Battle Creek's Mix 104.9 and 95.3 WBCK. Last year the company partnered with Arc Community Advocates to produce Kalamazoo's Ribfest.

According to their press release, Townsquare is "committed to keeping the event downtown, featuring Kalamazoo's most popular food vendors, showcasing an attractive entertainment schedule, and enhancing the attendee experience for years to come."

Deering wasn't emotionally ready to give up Taste, he says. But he realized, "It's probably time for some new energy."

"I do believe they have the recourses to continue it, and have it not lose character...." The festival should continue to show off the consumables of the city's restaurants, breweries and other businesses, he says.

He started then-named "Taste of Downtown" in 1985 to showcase a few downtown restaurants, including his own, Chaps on Main. Then there was only the venerable Greek Festival in June, and a wine and harvest festival in Bronson Park in the fall. Over the next three decades, the city's summer weekends became nearly-saturated with festivals, mainly at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place.

How does one sell a festival? "There's really not much in the way of tangible assets involved," he says. "It's primarily a good-will sort of thing." 

"You don't just fence off a parking lot and have a party. It takes time to build these things."

These are events with history and name-recognition. People expect a specific sort of good time at them. "Island Fest, somewhat nationally, definitely regionally, is one of the most popular of its type," he says. Taste, "I believe, is the largest food-related event in the state of Michigan." 

Island Festival, the June celebration of Caribbean music and food, is Deering's favorite, he says. That is going to Island Festival Management, formed in part by Ambassador David Productions, bookers of reggae, island music and other genres. David Bauman of Ambassador David will be event manager, according to the event Facebook page

Island has been moved from June to Aug. 27-29, and from Arcadia Festival Place the Growlers' field at Mayors Riverfront Park. "I was real pleased with that decision," Deering, who is consulting with the new Island owners, says. "Riverfront has a lot to offer," from its own parking lot to restrooms. "I think those folks have proven that they're really good facility operators... they do plan on doing more special events, and events of this variety" 

Deering thanked and credited Paul Toth for Island's success. Toth had been behind reggae-themed events since he staged reggae nights at the eclectic music venue, The Club Soda, in the '80s. Toth had been manager of Island, and had been entertainment manager at Taste.

"I understand that change is inevitable," Toth says. "But I'm particularly sad about the Island Festival. I've been involved in that since inception, for 19 years. I was looking forward to doing a 20th event, but that's not the case," he says. Island is unique in the region, and brought in reggae fans from Chicago to Canada. "Hopefully the event will continue to go on and be very successful."

These events have a history, and that's included in what Deering's sold. Reputation, intellectual property and all the "how-to, I think is worth something," Deering says.

What was the price tag? Deering chuckles at the question.

"I don't think that's public. I don't want anybody to think that there was some kind of a windfall here in all of that," he says.

"It goes back to the original question, how do you sell something like that? It isn't the same as a business that's operating 365 days a year," he says.
“Believe me, I'm not retiring," he says, laughing. "I'm retiring (from the festivals) but I'm not retiring from working!" 

Taste of Kalamazoo will be at Arcadia Creek Festival Place July 23-25. 

Kalamazoo Island Fest will be at the Growlers' Baseball Field Aug. 27-29.

Both events' vendor and entertainment lineup has yet to be announced.

Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer who has covered area festivals since 1994. He has been a customer of Wayne Deering venues/festivals since he saw The Meat Puppets at The Club Soda in 1985.