Artist's rendering of Todd Barber's "beer corral" for the first Summerfest in 2011. TODD BARBER

Iconic Pelham Arches made their debut in the early days of the event

Summerfest runs July 14-17 this summer, a four-day festival which is eagerly anticipated by Pelham residents and visitors. What began in 2011 as a single-day party to mark the completion of downtown streetscaping in Fonthill has grown into a Thursday-through-Sunday celebration that includes music and entertainment for all ages, along with a variety of food and potent potables, and a host of arts and craft vendors.

The streetscaping project was an effort by the Pelham Active Transportation Committee to promote a pedestrian-friendly town centre.

Summerfest runs simultaneously with the Farmers Market, which occupies the parking lot adjacent Town Hall, as well as the Summer Chill held at Peace Park, along with the popular Fonthill Bandshell Summer Concert Series, now in its 16th season.

Given the pandemic of the past two and a half years, Summerfest was last held in 2019, when some 30,000 attendees, 65 vendors, and 30 bands participated. The festival was recognized in 2020, for the sixth year in a row, as a Festivals & Events Ontario (FEO) top-100 festival. Dedicated volunteers and community groups are the cornerstone of the festival’s success: in 2019, some 1,200 hours of volunteer time were contributed.

The Pelham Summerfest Committee steers the event, composed of volunteers from the community at large, the Pelham Business Association, Pelham Active Transportation Committee, Welland/Pelham Chamber of Commerce, Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee, Town staff and council members.

Pelham’s Director of Recreation Culture & WellnessVickie vanRavenswaay spoke with the Voice, along with Communications Specialist Leah Letford and Special Events and Festivals Programmer Amanda Deschenes, about the evolution of Summerfest.

“In the beginning, prior to Summerfest, we had major construction downtown that seemed to go on forever, and the local businesses along Pelham Street and Highway 20 were suffering,” said vanRavenswaay. “Bea Clark of the Downtown Beautification Committee met with a group of citizens in Todd Barber’s office on Pelham Street, which included two gentlemen who have since passed away, Bill Shelton and Gary Accursi. At the end of the construction, we were ready for a party, so that’s how Summerfest started, with an orchestrated one-day bash.”

At the end of the construction, we were ready for a party, so that’s how Summerfest started, with an orchestrated one-day bash

The Town hired a communications person, and shot a video that included interviews with the construction workers while they were cleaning up.

“There were a few food trucks, and a permit for festival licensing, so we had eats and drinks while the bands played,” added Letford.

“That first year, there was a temporary structure that was erected, to create a shaded canopy over the bar area,” said vanRavenswaay. “There were some peaked tents, that I think Todd Barber arranged. The next year, Celebrate Ontario funding was available, but the criteria stipulated that the event had to be at least three days. So, the decision was made to expand the event, and incorporate it in with the Thursday night experience in Peace Park, which already existed.”

Long story short, Pelham didn’t get the funding, but had already committed to a three-day festival.

“The main reason we didn’t get government funding was because Summerfest had been designed as a community event, a kind of homecoming,” said vanRavenswaay. “Celebrate Ontario had a big push to bring people to festivals from out of town, and in Pelham we simply don’t have a lot of local places for people to stay overnight.”

Summerfest isn’t run as a fundraiser, but rather a break-even proposition. Revenues are about $125,000. The Town upfronts $15,000 annually, and donations total about $40,000.

“We have a large amount of revenue that comes in with sponsorship from community members, who have worked with the festival for many years,” said. This year we’ve got Peak Realty coming in as a new sponsor,” said Deschenes. “Without these community businesses, there would be no way to run Summerfest.”

The festival was in the red one year to the tune of about $1600, but a small festival reserve fund covered that shortfall.

“A rainy weekend creates problems if people don’t show up,” said vanRavenswaay. “We still have bills to pay, rain or shine. It’s all about Mother Nature. I’ve always said that we should try to operate the festival independent of grants. If we start to rely on government money, some day it’s going to dry up and then there goes your festival. Doing it with community support is the most sustainable way to operate.”

The iconic Pelham Arches made their debut in 2012.

Local entrepreneur Todd Barber, an architectural technologist and designer by training, has been involved with Summerfest since its inception.

“I created the beer garden — I called it the ‘beer corral’ — in year one,” said Barber. “We had these 14-foot-tall obelisks, which were kind of like the Eiffel Tower, with high-strength wire between them, and then a draping of burlap to create a bit of a gathering area. The next year, in 2012, we didn’t have any of that, because we had auctioned them off to people, who used them as ornaments in their backyards.”

I had a group of volunteers, and we came up with the idea of a series of catenary arches, sort of an inverted curve, like a suspended chain

Brainstorming ensued.

“As the next festival was approaching, I envisaged a design that would really make a statement, something we could set up in one day and taken down easily after the event,” said Barber. “I had a group of volunteers, and we came up with the idea of a series of catenary arches, sort of an inverted curve, like a suspended chain. I had witnessed the design of Casa Batllo when I visited Barcelona, Spain, a product of architect Antoni Gaudi’s imagination, and thought his concept would work for us.”

Wooden panels were fabricated, with a thin skin on the outside, and a core of wooden members glued together like a honeycomb web. The construction was performed on the floor of the old Pelham Arena.

“The carpentry crew went to work, with music playing while the brad-nailers hammered away. It was a lot of fun,” said Barber. A sod farm donated a tractor trailer to transport the arches from the arena to downtown.

“We loaded them all by hand.”

Barber’s Forestgreen Creations and Shoalts Engineering spearheaded the project, supported by a host of local businesses, included DeKorte Landscaping, Niagara Pre-Hung Doors, and Penner Building Centre. Financial sponsors included the Town of Pelham, Kwik Fit Niagara, My Place Bar and Grill, and Willowbrook Nurseries.

The arches were freestanding with concrete foundations, and an awning that stretched between them, connected together with a metal hub in the centre. They were supposed to be a temporary structure for the 2012 festival, but ended up remaining in place for seven years, and winning the Niagara Community Design Award in Urban Design and Architecture in 2013.

“The arches would probably still be standing, but a car collided with the structure and broke a panel away from the foundation on one corner, and it was never repaired,” said Barber. “Subsequently, a big wind came up, and snapped off the panel. The decision was then made to tear the arches down.”

“I remember that my lead guy on the arches project, Larry Clark, tried to talk me out of the job,” said Barber. “Time was getting short, and he came to me to express his reservations that we would get the arches finished in time for Summerfest. I just said to him, ‘Larry, we’re not going to fail.’ And sure enough, it all came together smoothly.”

But Barber is still amazed that they were able to mobilize so many local volunteers to get the job completed in such a short time frame.

As to the impending structure set to replace the original arches, Barber said that it will be interesting to see if the populace embraces the new design.

“It’s going to be solid, with a lot of concrete and steel. It’s going to be around for a while.”