Keep Lakefair alive with a modern touch

July 3, 2012 

By most measurements, the Capital Lakefair is a tremendously successful community celebration. Attendance figures are growing (except when it rains). Food vendors are making money. Nonprofits are doing so well, in fact, that for many it is their primary source of funding. Executive director, and four-time past president, Bob Barnes is bringing a business efficiency to the organization, saving it thousands of dollars in expenses.

But there’s trouble brewing for one of the South Sound’s most iconic events.

What’s the challenge? Succession planning. The once youthful, energetic group of community-minded volunteers who make Lakefair happen is dwindling and some are growing weary of the year-round commitment after so many years of service.

The organization needs new, young members. Without an infusion of new members, it’s possible that Lakefair won’t always exist, and that would be a huge loss to the community.

A group of young business people started Capital Lakefair in 1957. They called themselves Capitalarians, and their numbers grew quickly to more than 100.

But here’s what sometimes happens to successful ventures: A group of passionate citizens start something. The public eventually takes it for granted. People think it just magically happens every year and don’t offer to help. Inevitably, the founders grow older or move on to other things, and without a new group of passionate citizens the event dies.

Visitors and Convention Bureau Executive Director George Sharp is determined that won’t happen to Capital Lakefair. He joined the group this year, which has diminished to about 30 members, and is recruiting other like-minded community volunteers to rejuvenate the organization.

Sharp has plans to analyze the economic impact of a five-day mid-summer event that attracts more than 200,000 people to its festival, parade and fireworks. Thousands more out-of-town visitors come to the South Sound for major volleyball and softball tournaments that are purposely scheduled for the same weekend.

And Sharp and Barnes are aggressively telling the story this year that Lakefair is not just a weeklong festival in Heritage Park. It is, in fact, a year-round enterprise, driven by its Capital Lakefair Royal Scholarship Program.

Over the years, 240 young women have competed for more than $250,000 in scholarships. Six princesses are vying for the title of Lakefair Queen this year, and will receive $20,000 toward higher education.

The Royalty Scholarship Program requires participation in the Northwest Festival Hosting Association, which means the queen and princesses travel about 6,000 miles every summer to appear in parades with the Lakefair float in communities with similar programs. Without that reciprocal agreement, the Lakefair parade would not benefit from those communities’ 16 or so floats.

Some have criticized Lakefair for being old-fashioned. Certainly the name Capitalarians and those bright blue blazers they all wear seem out of date. A Lakefair queen and princess seem out of step in uber-liberal Olympia, at least to some, and the event’s website needs a modern touch.

It’s easy to sit back and point out the faults, but this group of hard-working volunteers have been staging an iconic South Sound event for 55 years that creates fun for families, generates money for nonprofits that gets funneled back to the most needy in our community, and enables young women to get a higher education.

What’s not to like about that? Rather than criticize the event for being old-fashioned, why not get involved and help shape its transformation into modernity?

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