BIG BayFest 2011: Needs People, Ideas And You

Vince Martell has headlined every BayFest in recent memory. It's time for a change.

Last night’s BayFest 2011 planning meeting kicked off without a hitch, but with only four people in attendance the group’s challenges for the “biggest BayFest ever” were clear.

Most of the evening was spent discussing how to rival their 10th anniversary bash. In 2001, the group had hundreds of members and more than 50 volunteers cobbled together to throw the biggest event Sheepshead Bay had seen in generations, with the entire waterfront down to Ocean Avenue shut off to traffic as tens of thousands of attendees flooded the streets. Fifteen bands played along the piers and the main stage, and entire blocks were dedicated to vendors, street performances and live demonstrations.

“Standing on the stage and looking all the way down to Lundy’s and seeing a sea of people” was an extraordinary feeling incomparable to recent events, said Bay Improvement Group President Steve Barrison.

In the past few years the show has dwindled to one main stage and two sparsely populated blocks.

The change is reflected in the organization itself. Most of the members have moved or gotten old and ill, with many passing away. The meeting room in the Golden Gate Inn catering hall was set up with scores of empty chairs, showing the organizers still have the optimism, but not the manpower.

Barrison said the neighborhood’s demographic changes have played into the group’s wane. Eastern Europeans are not as likely to be involved in the community, and so the group has lost the volunteer corps necessary to throw a huge event. This year’s event, he said, ended up being thrown together in the last few weeks.

But that’s not stopping the group from a major BayFest overhaul this year. Planning went forward to bring in at least the same size attendance and activities as ten years ago. They’re drawing up a list of corporate sponsors to give away freebies and put on demonstrations, as well as fund other efforts. They’ll also be approaching the boat owners to use the piers for bands and performances, as they did in 2001. And, after many years of having Vince Martell as the main act, they’re looking for a fresh, big name group to take the stage and draw visitors from afar.

There are some new hurdles, for sure. The city, for example, has scared off some BayFest mainstays with requests for permits and insurance. The New York Aquarium, Children’s Museum and Department of Environmental Conservation used to provide entertainment for attendees, with live animal demonstrations and performances. But several years ago, the city’s sudden request for licenses convinced many that it wasn’t worth the effort.

In a way, the dearth of manpower presents an opportunity. Bay Improvement Group’s mission is as faded in relevancy as the event itself. Originally formed to combat irresponsible development and safeguard the waterfront businesses, the large condominiums along the water’s edge make clear who won that battle. And while the group still has a purpose, a shot of fresh blood could provide the group with new ideas and relevancy. Not to mention a bigger, better BayFest.

Now is the time to join Bay Improvement Group. Not just because they need you, but because the entire community needs organizations with strength drawn from a wide swath of Sheepshead Bay’s demographics. BayFest’s success is a reflection of BIG’s muscle, and participating here will inevitably lead to a Sheepshead Bay built more directly by its residents, and not from city planners who’ve never paid a visit.