Cities and towns are recognizing the value of offering their residents more ways to engage with each other, as well as opportunities to show off their best assets and attract visitors from the surrounding areas who visit for a day or a weekend.
From celebrating the grand holiday traditions to offering locally grown produce and other goods at weekly farmers markets, today's events are held more frequently and require much more collaboration. Increasing safety personnel for crowds, recruiting vendors and closing streets are just several examples of collaboration and planning. Many cities are hiring coordinators dedicated at least half-time, if not full-time, to organizing and operating these events and making them special.
From left: Lisa Rogers, Joey Blethen, parks and recreation director of the City of Tega Cay, and Dustin Overton, Tega Cay's recreation superintendent. Photo: Cliff Nichols Photography.
"We begin planning for July Fourth in mid-March," said Joey Blethen, parks and recreation director for the City of Tega Cay, which sits along Lake Wylie between Charlotte and Rock Hill. "That initial planning meeting gives us an opportunity to recap some of the things from the previous July Fourth, what went well, what didn't, and meet with all the heads of the different departments that are going to be involved … I compile a checklist of what needs to be accomplished before the event. It seems like a never-ending list."
The city celebrates its birthday — it was incorporated in 1982 — along with the nation's birthday at the July Fourth celebration. Blethen has been involved with planning the event for six years and has been in charge the past three years.
"I'm one of those types of people, I'd rather have my fate in my own hands versus holding volunteers accountable," Blethen said. "But it's kind of cool knowing you're the linchpin that pulls everyone onto the same page."
The event has grown over the years and is now the biggest one hosted by the city. The day typically kicks off with a breakfast for dignitaries and VIPs. There is one event every hour until 9:30 p.m., including a land parade, a boat parade, a paddleboard joust, fish fry and — of course — fireworks.
With a daylong event spread out across the town, coordination among all city workers is key, Blethen said. But no amount of planning can tackle the event's biggest challenge.
"No. 1 is the weather," Blethen said. "There is nothing worse than planning something months and months in advance and having the weather ruin it."
The weather is a constant threat for special events planners around the state.
"One of the hardest parts of planning events is coming to terms with the fact that the weather in South Carolina is incredibly unpredictable," said Megan Boisvert, special events coordinator for the Town of Summerville.
Summerville's Special Events Coordinator Megan Boisvert, right, is joined by Dave Burke
at the town's Fourth of July celebration. Photo: Town of Summerville.
"You could work for weeks on planning and it could get canceled because of weather. Sadly that's one of those things you can do nothing about. This year, we had awful rain storms on the Fourth of July which put a halt on people coming out to the event. We powered through the rain and set up everything as planned; about two hours before the fireworks went off, the weather cleared up and it turned into a lovely event with a huge crowd."
A native of New Hampshire, Boisvert will celebrate one year on the job in December 2019 and says she has always been involved in parks and recreation. She majored in recreation management and policy at the University of New Hampshire.
Her job in Summerville includes smaller events, like Movies in the Park, the town's Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Sounds on the Square Concert Series.
She also is in charge of the weekly farmers market, which runs every Saturday from April through November.
"I am always trying to come up with fun new ways to theme the market and bring more visitors through," Boisvert said. "The best part about my job is that it gives me the opportunity to be creative and provide memories to the community.
"It warms my heart to see so many different people of all ages brought together by an event that I created and ran."
Ashlee Tolbert, a former schoolteacher, says she had no experience planning large-scale events until it became part of her job as the former community development manager for the City of Fountain Inn.
Ashlee Tolbert recently served as Fountain Inn's special events and community development manager.
Photo: City of Fountain Inn.
The city's largest event is a three-week holiday celebration that the city has been putting on for more than 30 years — Christmas "Inn" Our Town.
"The tradition continues because people really like it," she said.
The carriage rides run Wednesday through Sunday for three weeks and take visitors through downtown and a nearby neighborhood where homes are decorated for the holidays.
While almost all of the city's special events are free, the carriage rides are $8 a person to offset some of the costs. The city contracts for the horses, carriages and drivers. Planning includes a temporary stable for the horses, as well as closing down streets and increased safety precautions at the points where horse-drawn carriages interact with modern automobile traffic.
The nearly month-long celebration culminates in the Merry Market — a weekend of arts and crafts, music, food and visits with Santa.
Tolbert's team has made a concerted effort in recent years to get the word out beyond the city limits about the carriage rides and the festival, using hospitality tax dollars to market the event.
"People come because we have so much to offer," she said. "It really sells itself because of the family-friendly atmosphere and events.
"It's great, but it's very intense when you're seeing thousands of people over two to three weeks."
While growing crowds are one measure of success for any event, Tolbert said she also solicits feedback at regular neighborhood roundtable meetings.
"We talk about real topics going on in the city and how we want to see the city grow," she said. "Their feedback helps when planning future events."
Ken Ivey, the Municipal Association of SC's manager of member services
Every year, the Municipal Association handles logistics for more than 90 events around the state, but these conferences and training sessions differ greatly from the resident-focused events staged by cities and towns. The Association's events range from large gatherings like the Annual Meeting and Hometown Legislative Action Day to the sessions of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute, as well as the conferences and education opportunities of affiliate associations.
Manager of Member Services Ken Ivey plays a critical role in the planning and management of these meetings. In his role with the Association, Ivey handles venue contracts, caterers, transportation and hotel rooms among other logistics, working on specific parts of the process months and even years in advance.
Event management, he said, can be "stressful, but not in an unhappy way. It's enjoyable to be working in an environment where many things are happening all at once, and to see everything come together at the end and create a successful, effective meeting."