- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

MUSKEGON, Mich. (AP) - After an initial year of success and plans for the second year well underway, the new Lakeshore Art Festival has some lofty longer-term goals.

The Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce - which last summer rescued the 50-plus years of downtown Muskegon art fairs over the Fourth of July - has a specific vision of where the two-day event will be in the next three to five years.

“We want this to become the Ann Arbor of the west,” Muskegon chamber President Cindy Larsen told The Muskegon Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1jtayDn ). “If anyone is interested in art festivals, we want Muskegon to be No. 1 on their minds.”

The chamber wants to take the Muskegon event to a whole new level, she said. National reputations have been built for Michigan art festivals, which has six of the top-50-rated art festivals in the United States, including those in Ann Arbor and St. Joseph - both which are in the Top 10. Ann Arbor leads the way with its famed “street fair.”

“We want Muskegon to be about quality art and crafts,” Larsen continued. “We are talking about making this festival a destination for fine arts and crafts. Ann Arbor is overwhelming in size and scope. We will not be that big but of greater quality. We want to be a destination location for a family-fun event.”

Whether the Lakeshore Art Festival - July 4-5 this summer - becomes the “next big thing” in Muskegon festival history is yet to be seen. But tourism promoters like what is happening so far.

“The Lakeshore Art Festival and Taste of Muskegon have the ability to grow and greatly expand,” said Bob Lukens, Muskegon County community development director, including the food festival June 20-21 in Hackley Park. “Due to volunteers and good event management, we have several successful festivals from Unity (Christian music festival), Muskegon Bike Time and the Michigan Irish Music Festival.”

What, if any, event takes hold at Muskegon County’s Heritage Landing on the evening of the Fourth of July to provide community fireworks and holiday entertainment is yet to be determined. At least, the day-time art festival event has laid a solid foundation, according to Jonathan Seyferth, director of Downtown Muskegon Now - the downtown development and promotion agency.

“The Lakeshore Art Festival can grow into one of the state’s great art events,” Seyferth said. “We can rival Ann Arbor and Traverse City and communities of that caliber.”

The future of downtown Fourth of July art fairs was unknown after Muskegon’s Summer Celebration’s sponsorship of Art in the Park ended with the music festival’s demise in 2011. A Lansing-based promoter’s attempt to keep the Muskegon art fair tradition alive in 2012 left vendors and festival-goers unhappy.

As musical festival organizers stepped forward with the Coast West Music Festival at Muskegon County’s Heritage Landing in 2013, the Muskegon chamber took on the art festival cause. Coast West financially failed after one year.

The chamber immediately hired CMF Marking LLC and Carla Flanders of Norton Shores to resurrect and rebrand the event the Lakeshore Art Festival.

“After doing our research, we found that chambers of commerce have been the driving force behind successful art festivals in tourism communities throughout the state,” Larsen said. “It is a win-win for our members getting them engaged and it can produce income to underwrite other chamber programs.”

The initial Lakeshore Art Festival in 2013 was not only a success with vendors and patrons but also financially. The $100,000-budgeted festival netted the chamber about $20,000, Larsen said.

Muskegon patterned its art fair investigating similar chamber-sponsored events in Grand Haven, Petoskey and Charlevoix, Larsen said. Not only does the event draw people into downtown Muskegon and improve the overall community image, but it provides business opportunities for many of the chamber’s small business members, she said.

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