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Jeff Parks' rough sketch of 25 years ago has become a festival drawing millions
At a dinner party long ago, Jeff Parks surprised his guests with a piece of brown paper that had a rough sketch showing "platzes." The sketch laid out an ambitious plan: a 10-day German-style music festival in Bethlehem, with free admission for all.
"You're nuts," said one of his guests.
More than 25 years later, Musikfest 2008 opened with a tribute to Parks, now director of ArtsQuest, the nonprofit organization that was spawned by and has grown up around the festival. To honor Parks and commemorate the silver anniversary of the festival, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan proclaimed Aug. 1, 2008, "Jeff Parks Day."
Callahan thanked Parks for his vision, which helped change the face of Bethlehem, then still struggling to redefine itself with Bethlehem Steel in the midst of its long decline. Parks has said Musikfest was "group therapy" for the city. Callahan agreed.
"This community needed a good shot in the arm," he said.
Not everyone would agree Musikfest was the best thing for the city. As Musikfest has grown, neighbors have complained about noise, lack of parking, overcrowded streets and litter. Some have said the festival has gotten too big.
Either way, Musikfest has come a long way since Parks' dinner party. Parks, then a local attorney and solicitor for the Bethlehem Economic Development Corp., says he does not remember that fateful evening. He admits to having a poor memory.
One of his guests, Helene Whitaker recalled huddling around the sketch plan in Park's dining room with others who took some time to digest the concept of the festival. It required the downtown streets be closed to vehicle traffic, allowing revelers to wander about drinking beer, eating festival food and listening to live music without paying a dime for admission. The initial reaction was skepticism, Whitaker said.
"You ever hear of starting small?" Whitaker recalled someone asking.
"No," Parks replied. "I always believed in starting big."
The inaugural festival was big and has only gotten bigger. It started out with six platzes and now has as many as 14 performance venues -- a total of more than 500 performances. When no one knew what to expect in 1984, about 100,000 people showed over the course of 10 days. Attendance now routinely exceeds 1 million people.
Though the festival spans just 10 days in August, it's a year-round production, with work for the next year beginning before this year's festival ends. During the 10 frenetic days of the festival, Parks can be seen bouncing from venue to venue, dealing with issues and making sure everything runs smoothly, rarely finding time to enjoy his own handiwork.
"My passion has always been
making this a dynamic community and a good place to live," Parks said.
According to ArtsQuest's own estimates, the festival now generates about $37 million for the local economy. ArtsQuest has also continued to evolve, launching a visual arts center, the Banana Factory, and an outdoor holiday season market, Christkindlmarkt, becoming one of the main promoters and generators of tourism in the Christmas City.
In the past two years, ArtsQuest has also taken over administration of the annual First Night alcohol-free New Year's Eve celebration and announced its most ambitious project to date, SteelStax -- a $53 million broadcasting, performing arts and festival complex.
Combining the old electric furnace shop and new construction, the complex will host a new studio for PBS-39, a public theater, art house cinema and the Musikfest Cafe, a 450-seat year-round music venue.
At $53 million, it is Parks' most expensive and arguably his most ambitious vision to date. Some have questioned how he can possibly raise that amount of cash for a nonprofit performing arts center.
Of course, he's heard that before.
Daryl Nerl contributed to this story.