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When an Event is more than an Event

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | May 7, 2016
Emporia Main Street events evolve over time.  What starts out as something small, often grows and changes to meet new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.  They say necessity is the mother of all invention, and the small staff numbers at Main Street often require that each event impacts multiple goals.  Because of the grass roots nature of our membership/volunteer base, those goals are driven by the community.  As we all recover from the Taste, I thought it was appropriate to detail why we do some of the things we do within the event, and what we are trying to accomplish (beyond the obvious goal of raising funds).
1.  We are trying to expose Main Street to various elements of the community, and beyond.- One of my favorite comments from the Taste was “there are so many people we don’t know here”.  In smaller towns, there is always the danger of seeing an event devolve into a series of “cliques” with people onlyhanging with “their group”.  This year’s Taste wasn’t like that.  We had people from all walks of life and every age range that hopped from group to group and socialized.  That type of open socialization makes an event a lot more fun and A LOT easier to work around.  The crowd was simply there to have a good time, so when we needed to work ice to the local vendors in big coolers, people accommodated and were very jovial.  When we get a bunch of positive people together in the same room that support Main Street, good things tend to happen.  When people see the diverse nature of individuals that support Main Street, it reinforces the grass roots nature of our organization.
2.  We want to emphasize “maker” businesses in the region.- We hear the term “batch manufacturing” a lot in relation to the future economy.  In Kansas, our “batch manufacturing” on an entrepreneurial scale tends to revolve around “value added agriculture”.  The folks that take Kansas agricultural commodities, or other raw materials, and make something fantastic are vital to our economy.  We emphasize “makers” through events like the “How It’s Made” tour, but we also support our area producers through events like The Taste.  It’s our hope that the participating food vendors, wineries, distilleries and breweries picked up a number of fans on Saturday that will patronize their products.  LOCAL music is also a big part of the event- whether you were listening to Eric Martin upstairs or the Steve Kile band on the main stage- we had a local flair that emphasizes our philosophy of supporting our home town folks.
3.  We need to expose potential entrepreneurs to leaders in their respective categories.- The nextgeneration of restaurateurs, specialty food producers, winery/vineyard owners, brewers and/or distillery operators might have been in the audience.  An under-emphasized part of entrepreneurial development is the need for entrepreneurs to be in proximity to other entrepreneurs.  There is something special that occurs within an entrepreneurial culture when creative “doers” have frequent contact.  One of the goals of the original Taste was to help foster the creation of some of the businesses we see at the event.  We now have an awesome brewery, an emerging winery, and we are waiting for that special entrepreneur to create an Emporia distillery…  Putting people in close contact with individuals that have successfully opened their businesses can lead to some good things.
4.  We are charged with supporting local businesses in ways that clearly improve their business climate.- If you attended the Taste, you probably noticed that local businesses had a more pronounced presence.  Local night life went out of their way to showcase what they have to offer.  The results from their activities lead to a super busy night for area bars, a huge Sunday for some of our area restaurants and some additional traffic for other area businesses.  We gauge our success by the success of our members, and some “tweaks” to The Taste refocused efforts to highlight local businesses in more visible ways.
5.  We want to generate some fun in a hard working community.- The Taste is kind of a blast, but it reflects a “work hard/play hard” mentality of a blue collar community.  We’ve been asked on a few different occasions why we don’t run people through more “Main Street stuff” at the event, with a series of speeches highlighting our projects, but we view the Taste more as a celebration of the “end result” of what we do.  The businesses promoted, the volunteers that coordinate various aspects of the event and the diverse community support IS the showcase we want to highlight.
6.  We want to act as a “lead in” to several different businesses, depending on the consumers individual tastes.- In a conversation with Jeremy Johns from Radius, he talked about attendees of theTaste that loved wine and simply came to the Radius booth for some of Gus Bays famous food.  JJ would offer people a sample of a sour style beer, and many wine drinkers were exposed to something they really liked.  The same thing held true with a lot of our local vendors.  They showcased unique items that people might not have ordered on their own, but they enjoyed as part of a larger tasting event.  Exposing people to new, unique local products helps our businesses build a loyal following.
7.  We test different types of systems for events- and then share those systems with other businesses and organizations.-  The Taste was one of the first community events that offered on-line purchase capabilities (a decade ago).  We’ve tested different types of licensing with cooperation from the City of Emporia and the Kansas ABC.  The integration of different Kansas elements is more common now, but it was pretty unique when the event began.  Each year, we make changes (some seen by the public, and some internal) to gain additional information that we can use as a case study for members.  When we run social media ads and track click through rates that result in ticket purchases, we can relay positive and negative experiences to other businesses/organizations so everyone can improve.
The history of the Taste includes influence by Shawn Honea, Scott Bolley, Kevin Nelson and Mary Helmer working together to form a celebratory event that emphasized local culture in a fun atmosphere.  The staying power of this event (and it’s growth) is a testament to those with the foresight to start the event, and individuals like Kayla Oney-Savage, Jessica Hopkins, Becky Smith and Lauren Woolard that have all added unique elements in the planning process.  It takes a lot of community volunteers to run an event like The Taste, and our volunteers also contribute significant input to our growing events.  Thank you for your continued support for Emporia Main Street, and we promise to keep pushing for a better community with your contributions.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.