GTPulse: Kat Paye and the State of the National Cherry Festival

Written by guest columnist Christal Frost

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“I thought that my biggest issue for 2020 would be the rising water levels,” explains Kat Paye, Executive Director of the National Cherry Festival.  “And, yet…here we are.”

Paye gazes past me as we sit across the room from each other ten days before what would have been the kickoff of the National Cherry Festival’s 94th celebration. Normally, Paye, her staff, and the legion of volunteers would be in high gear this time of year. But, this year is anything but normal. “We’re busy. It’s just a different kind of busy.”

Paye wears a gold necklace featuring cherries, of course. Her gaze, though is somehow both in the future and in the past as she recalls making the decision to postpone this year’s celebration.  “I cried when I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I came to my own realization that this is where we were headed after talking to everyone I could talk to— local officials, state officials, other state and national event organizers, even international organizers. And, then I went to my board. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Cherries run deep with the small but dedicated six-person staff that makes up the National Cherry Festival.

“We all grew up in Traverse City. None of us know what a 4th of July looks like without a Cherry Festival,” says Paye reminiscing her own long history with the tradition.

“My Dad lived in Virginia when I was growing up, and I would spend summers with him, but I would never go until after the festival. I would tell him he couldn’t make arrangements for me to come see him until after the festival.”

It seems like Paye was destined to lead this festival. She started volunteering when she was just eight years old, and she’s never looked back. She’s worked her way through the ranks from volunteer to operations manager before taking the role of Executive Director in 2016.

Like Paye, the festival has deep roots.

What started in 1910 as a group of growers convening on Old Mission Peninsula to pray for a good cherry crop is now an expansive eight-day festival, drawing 500,000 visitors each year and helping to earn Traverse City the title of Cherry Capital of the World.

“Traverse City is synonymous with cherries,” Paye explains. “It’s in our culture. Cherries are everywhere…Our airport is named after cherries.”

The marriage between the festival and the region, however, hasn’t always been easy. Festival naysayers have grown louder in recent years, criticizing everything: the size, length and time of the festival, crowded streets and beaches, noise from concerts, fireworks and air shows, and, above all else, the traffic congestion throughout the area.

Paye acknowledges the complaints the festival has encountered over the years, “We know we’re not loved by everyone. People complain about things, but we always hoped that with 150 events, and 90% of those events free to the public, people would find something to love about our celebration of cherries.”

Regardless of the individual opinions of the past, however, there is no arguing the National Cherry Festival’s economic impact on our local economy. A 2016 study commissioned through Grand Valley State University found that the eight-day festival has an estimated $19 million dollar impact on our local economy. And, as local businesses face a decrease in tourism, that $19 million dollar impact is sorely missed.

Strangely, though, it is the success of the National Cherry Festival itself, and its admitted weakness in telling its own story, that has led to many misconceptions about the festival’s operations. “People think that we have millions of dollars,” Paye says with a chuckle. “Some people think that we’re taxpayer funded, which we’re not, but they think their tax dollars are paying for the festival. They don’t understand that we are a private non-profit. We were started by farmers. Our revenue comes from selling tickets and sponsorships. And, when we can’t sell tickets or sponsorships because we don’t have a festival, we have a problem.”

Telling the whole story of the National Cherry Festival is among Paye’s growing list of priorities, “We (The Festival) gave over $160,000 to local non-profits last year alone. We donate barricades and we offer volunteer and staff help for countless events throughout the year. And, when the pandemic started having an effect on our region, we were called to donate hand sanitizer and gloves from our medical tents to organizations across the area. We answered that call with pride. We take every opportunity to support our community.”

That kind of community support, along with expanding the Festival Foundation’s reach to include new events, have been a major tenet of Paye’s leadership during her three-and-a-half years leading the organization.

But, it’s the community that has been a major support to the Festival staff these past three months.

In fact, it was the community who came to Paye and her staff with ideas to celebrate the festival virtually.

“We weren’t going to do anything. But, then people kept reaching out to us, asking us if they could help us celebrate, even in little ways. It’s really amazing, the outpouring of support. It’s unbelievable.”

Virtual festival events include a porch parade, which kicked off July 4th, and features dozens of porches, windows and lawns decorated by festival fans throughout the Traverse City area. There is also an online cherry pie baking tutorial on July 9th with Mike and Denise Busley, owners of the Grand Traverse Pie Company. Merchandise for the 2020 festival, including the Go for the Gold Pin Program and the 2020 commemorative print by local high school student Tristyn Klockziem, is also being sold by volunteers and online. And, thanks to requests from the community, a “Festival in a Bag” kit is available for a $30 donation. The kit is designed to help families hold their own festivals at home and includes recipes, cherry products and participation ribbons.

The longstanding tradition of the festival royalty is also continuing virtually. Paye says 2019 National Cherry Queen Sierra Moore will continue her reign through 2020, and the first graders who were selected from area elementary schools to serve as Junior Royalty have enjoyed scavenger hunts and socially distant get-togethers with staff and other junior royal families.

Even with the outpouring of support, though, the future of the festival is still uncertain. “We’re okay for now,” says Paye adding, “ (and), it’s because of this community and the dedication of our board, staff and volunteers. We have a rainy day fund, but I don’t think anyone planned for a pandemic fund.”

But, the pandemic has given Paye and the Festival Foundation Board an opportunity to rethink their own funding sources, while reinvesting in community ownership. “We’re starting a Growing the Festival program, which will allow for individuals to donate monthly, as little as $5 a month even, to support us during these uncertain times.”

The budget for future festivals will undoubtedly look different, too. “When we do come back, we’re looking at a need for personal protection equipment and many new installments designed to keep attendees safe at future festivals and other events. Those additions come with a hefty price tag.”

Despite the uncertainty, Paye is embracing this opportunity to get back to the roots of the National Cherry Festival.

“We’re going to continue to focus on our local partners.” Paye credits her predecessor, Trevor Tkach, with refocusing the festival’s attention locally.  “Trevor really started that process. It’s funny, though, and I guess this goes back to us being able to tell our own story. People don’t know that some of our major partners, like Arnold Amusements and Gibby’s Fries, are actually local. They live here, they are a part of our community.”

For now, though, Paye is looking for the good at every turn.

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Recently, her family gathered in a cherry orchard for photos with her one year old son. “My husband works for Shoreline fruit,” she laughs, “Cherries pay for everything in our life. Cherries are our life.”

Paye and her husband are already passing their love and respect of cherries onto their son, Andrew.

“We were holding Andrew up, close to the cherry tree for a family photo and he was reaching for the blossom.”

Paye smiles, “I said ‘be careful, don’t squeeze that flower…that’s a future cherry.’”

That’s how Kat Paye looks at the National Cherry Festival these days. She’s hopeful, careful, and always on the lookout for future cherries.

Categories: GTPulse, National Cherry Festival