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Spirit Fest again enjoys record crowds despite rainy starts to first, last days

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Rainy starts to Wednesday and Sunday did not dampen record crowds from turning out on the other days of Dearborn Heights' 28th annual Spirit Festival.

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By last week's closing of the June 4-8 event, Dearborn Heights Parks and Recreation Director Kenneth P. Grybel said that attendance turned out to be up 10 percent over last year's then-record numbers. Grybel credited this year's record crowds to “extremely large” turnouts occurring daily, including the largest crowd ever on a Thursday evening, the largest turnout for a Friday evening, and a Saturday which drew “the largest attendance for a single day in the entire history of Spirit.”

In the final day, the second annual pancake breakfast did better attracting diners than in its first year, Grybel said, “but not to the level we'd like yet.” He said the turnout was hurt drastically by rain throughout Sunday morning, which “held down the attendance.” It was still a little slow to get going when the weather cleared up by afternoon, but he termed the turnout “excellent” for the Elvis tribute, and that the Sunday closeout Segar tribute proved a hit with the evening crowd as well.

While he said there were undoubtedly some Mustangs that stayed in their garage because of the morning rain, Grybel thought the turnout for the vintage car display was impacted more that Sunday afternoon by competing with another car show in Livonia.

“There were 8-10 Mustangs that turned out, and we had a decent variety,” Grybel said.

Despite Wednesday's all-day rain, Grybel said having umbrellas and tents on hand ensured that probably up to 80 percent of the sellout showed up at the senior centers to board the bus shuttles to the Senior Spirit Jubilee. However, though the skies cleared and the sun came out by 6 p.m., he believed that the carnival's sneak preview night still did poor business because too many people had already made up their minds not to come out on a school night.

“I think the following nights showed these people still came out to our festival, just at other times than they would have otherwise,” Grybel said. “Our crowds still rising after 28 years is a positive sign.”

The Dearborn Heights Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs indicated they were very pleased by the large numbers they drew for their Community Service Club Night, he said. Grybel largely credited this surge in Friday's turnout to the celebrity status of WDIV-TV anchor Devin Scillian, which he said might have been the number one hit of the festival in terms of audience response. Grybel noted that the Friday night crowd jumped 35 percent when Scillian performed through most of the country band concert.

"That's where we drew in a lot of new people, and they looked like 'Eleven O'Clock News' people who wanted to see how Devin would perform," Grybel said. "He made quite an impression."

All the major attractions on stage this year enjoyed good response, according to Grybel, who noted that the festival organizers want to ensure that the bands are so different from each other. For example, he said Saturday's performance by the Duane Malinowski Band “is a polka band, who draws a different audience from our other bands.

“There was dancing to classic rock from Steve King & the Dittilies,” Grybel said. “The tent was packed Saturday night, and the dance floor was full.”

The only disappointing note Grybel found about Saturday's record turnout was the attendance at the ninth annual “A Salute to our Military—Past & Present.” He said that many who participate in the event are older World War 2 veterans, while veterans of modern conflicts have not tended to have as many participate.

“I'm a little disappointed,” Grybel said. “We do get a turnout from the general public—I just wish we had a greater number of them--though those who were there had many positive comments.”

What was disappointing about Friday night, he said, was about a 25-percent decline in the turnout for the eighth annual Pasta & Pizza Fest. “We might want to review why,” Grybel said, though he pointed out that the Crestwood High School Cheerleaders have total charge of the Pasta & Pizza Feast, which means their yearly turnover will always bring a new group of girls selling tickets for each festival.

Thursday's Taste of the Heights Fest and Mayor's Walk each tend to draw the same type of crowd, Grybel said, which means their numbers of participants tend not to fluctuate from year to year. Marie Ellul Langlois was the winner in the Mayor's Walk drawing for the $50 gift certificate from Antonio's Cucina Italiana.

Saturday night's police vs. fire softball game tends to draw crowds “pretty much of their friends and family members,” he said. A mercy rule was imposed after five innings when the firefighters romped 17-4, though Grybel said both teams continued to play on after the formal game ended.

“The police department has its work cut out for next year's game,” Grybel said.

Sunday's water ball fight was more of a exhibition show than a competition, he said, with no official scorer. Grybel explained that the audience and even some firefighters needed to get introduced to the activity, and that the firefighters look to get competitive with future events, possibly even competing with with another city's department at next year's festival. When the firefighters took a break from the water ball fight, Grybel added, they allowed some children around the ages of 4-6 to hold the hose and have fun spraying water.

The North Dearborn Heights Baseball underestimated this year's demand, having to close early each day from running out of food, he reported, and the Dearborn Heights Redskins Junior Football reported selling more hamburgers this year than at any other festival. Grybel had also talked to others manning booths in the community area, and that all had indicated they had done great business, “and all would like to come back.”

The festival also works to supply sufficient parking during evening hours, he said, and this year's shuttle from the post office parking lot was carrying 50-60 people each day (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).

“That's not a large number, but it provides enough parking so we don't overflow the Crestwood High School lot, so I guess it is all working,” Grybel said.

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