Editorial: Festival delivers

The Free State Festival is a growing success story for Lawrence.

Congratulations are in order for the organizers of the Free State Festival, which drew more than 20,000 people to downtown Lawrence for the weeklong event at the end of June. Attendance nearly doubled from the 2014 event.

That’s good news for Lawrence, which benefits from the growth and success of events like the Free State Festival.

In 2013, the Lawrence Arts Center received a two-year National Endowment for the Arts grant to help put on the festival. Formerly known as the Free State Film Festival, the festival was expanded in 2014 to be a celebration not only of film, but also of art, music and ideas. The 2014 event attracted some 12,000 people.

This year, more than 100 artists were commissioned or contracted for the festival, said Susan Tate, the executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center. A crowd estimated at 8,000 attended a downtown concert by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. The films shown at the festival as well as talks with novelists-screenwriters Dennis Lehane and Jon Ronson drew big crowds. The first-ever Free State Beer Dinner sold out. Eight of the 35 ideas sessions sold out. The sessions, ranging from a performance from comedian Tig Notaro to discussions of the future of newspapers and the commercialization of marijuana, appealed to a wide variety of crowds.

The city of Lawrence, Downtown Lawrence Inc. and the Lawrence Arts Center are working on a study to quantify the economic impact of the Free State Festival. Anecdotally, DLI Executive Director Sally Zogry said the festival definitely appeared to have a positive impact on downtown stores. “There was a lot of foot and vehicle traffic,” Zogry said. “Retailers definitely got some out-of-town people.”

Marlo Angell, the festival’s artistic director of film and performance, said the event felt like “a citywide festival” for the first time this year.

Work has already begun on the 2016 festival, again scheduled for the last week of June. If organizers can continue to expand and improve the festival, that bodes well for Lawrence, especially downtown.