NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty’s annual Blues and BBQ event celebrated its fifth birthday this past summer. Recently, event organizers were given even more to celebrate.
Liberty Centre Blues & BBQ was chosen as the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) 2011 Attraction of the Year.
The award was presented at the CVB’s Annual Luncheon and Report on Dec. 1 at Iowa City’s downtown Sheraton Hotel. CVB President Josh Schamberger said the recognition, which has been in place for at least 12 years, is nominated and awarded by the entire CVB staff and its 14-member board
“We are looking for the attraction, festival or event that has demonstrated its dedication to better the quality of life and have a positive economic impact on the community,” said Schamberger. “North Liberty Blues & BBQ has come a long way since its first year, and it continues growing every year.”
Previous Attraction of the Year winners include the Iowa Children’s Museum, Summer of the Arts, the Johnson County Historical Society, the Iowa City Book Festival and Hancher.
The first-ever Blues & BBQ festival took place in 2007, originally planned as a one-time event to bring North Liberty residents together to showcase the opening of Liberty Centre’s park and pond as a premier, pedestrian-friendly, attractive and engaging public space. An estimated 1,000 people showed up the first year to enjoy the area’s reputable blues musicians and delectable barbecue and other foods served by local vendors. The success of the first year’s event led to its repeat performances– garnering ever-bigger audiences– each Memorial Day weekend since. In 2010, attendance was estimated to be around 7,000.
In 2011, the festival was rescheduled from May to July due to damaging storms, and despite the rescheduling, rain on the rain date and steamy July temperatures, attendance was still about 3,500 strong.
The always-free, always family-friendly Blues & BBQ festival is organized by the North Liberty Community Betterment Group, a cadre of city representatives and North Liberty business leaders who volunteer their time, energy and talents for the planning process beginning in January each year. It takes another 100 to 150 volunteers from the community and surrounding areas in the days before, during and after the event to orchestrate the one-day happening.
Dave Moore, co-chair for the event’s planning committee, said Blues & BBQ has gained popularity because organizers stay true to the festival’s original intent.
“People kind of know what to expect from year to year,” said Moore. “It’s a family event, and we keep parents in mind when we plan so there will be fun things to keep everyone engaged. We have good food and good bands. We invite musicians whose names are recognized and have a wide draw. Some of them have been here three or four years, and we always try to have new musicians too.”
One staple of the Blues & BBQ musical diet has been Iowa City singer/songwriter/recording artist and guitarist Kevin “B.F.” Burt. Bob Dorr and the Blue Band have returned the last four years, and regional artist/music producer Dave Zollo has given repeat performances in North Liberty as well. This past summer, Blues & BBQ welcomed its first-ever female performer, Regina Escher of Iowa City.
Whether well-established or lesser known, the musicians that grace the Blues & BBQ stage are skilled and accomplished, masterful and entertaining across a wide range of blues styles. Above all, though, bands at Blues & BBQ a part of the local music scene.
“We have always focused on Iowa bands, and most of our vendors are from the nearby area,” said Moore. “We will continue that tradition.”
While being mindful of the mainstays for event, the planning committee is also always seeking ways to improve it.
“Like with any event, you have to figure out what works, and if it doesn’t work, you have to be willing to set things aside and try other things that can help make it better,” said Moore.
For example, the committee is in the process of securing a partner to provide microbrews in the beverage garden for the 2012 event.
“We will definitely focus on Iowa beers,” said Moore. “We want to keep that Iowa connection part of the event and part of the whole experience.”
Moore said other aspects of the event will not change.
“Our goal is that we can always provide this free for the community,” he said. “We hope it will always be volunteer-driven, and it will remain an event for the whole family.”
Moore added that the recognition from the CVB is a tribute to all who make the event happen, from the planning committee to the musicians and food vendors, to the volunteers who staff the activity booths to those who set up days before and clean up afterward.
“It’s great that someone from the outside recognizes the efforts of those who are working so hard to put it together,” Moore said.
Schamberger said during the award selection process, the Blues & BBQ committee’s decision to reschedule after getting rained out– and nearly blown away after heavy winds damaged tents, equipment and portable toilets– stood out to the CVB staff and board when choosing the Attraction of the Year for 2011.
“With having to cancel the event, it would have been just as easy to wrap it up, but the committee pulled together to host it another weekend,” said Schamberger. “It’s just a great event for the community.”