Arts Festival Is First Test for Wean Park

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Now that downtown Youngstown finally has a great park, the next goal is to achieve its stated goal of becoming a focus of community life.

Wean Park, which sits between Covelli Centre and the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, is the final piece of the transformation of the downtown riverfront, which once was about as scuzzy as it gets. It was finished in 2018, but didn’t take shape until 2019.

Then came the pandemic, which wiped out all of last year and the first half of this year.

So Wean Park is in its infancy. And it’s no ordinary park. It’s owned by the city. But like Covelli and The Amp, it’s operated and managed by JAC Management.

Think of it as not so much a park as a venue for events staged by JAC or outside promoters.

JAC Management is exploring all options to see what works and how to proceed. For example, there was a wedding at the privatized park a couple of weeks ago.

In the meantime, Derrick McDowell, the city’s community events liaison, is working with local organizations who use the park for their own events. That includes the paved area underneath the Market Street Bridge known as Huntington Bank Community Alley.

But the first real event, the shakedown cruise, will be the Summer Festival of the Arts. The weekend-long cultural event that had been taking place on the campus of Youngstown State University for a few decades is moving to Wean this year. It will take place July 17 and 18.

The move was prompted by the university’s desire to embrace the community and it also gives the festival room to grow. JAC Management is partnering with YSU in staging the festival, which typically draws up to 15,000 people over its two days.

YSU’s Lori Factor has been the director of the Summer Festival of the Arts for years and still is. She’s tasked with picking up the event and moving it. She is working with JAC toward that end.

There are challenges at every location, Factor says, especially when it’s a new venue.

A festival requires electricity, water, toilets, parking, security and other logistics that few people even think about.

Those have been taken care of and the new layout of the festival has been determined.

The 70 or so artist booths will follow the paved paths through the park. The food vendors will be at Huntington Bank Community Alley because that’s where the connections to electricity and water are. The two performance stages will also be near Community Alley.

Picnic tables will be set up throughout the park where visitors can rest or eat.

There will be no need to bring in portable potties because the bathrooms at The Amp and Covelli Centre will be used.

Parking will be free and plentiful in the big lot behind Covelli Centre. There is also parking all over the downtown area.

Artists will load-in their booths and artwork from the Covelli lot, where a fleet of golf carts manned by volunteers will help them.

Security will be hired to stand guard all weekend.

That’s the nuts and bolts. The other half of the equation is educating the public about the new location and also getting the artists and vendors up to speed on loading protocols.

The leafy and well-manicured YSU campus was an excellent place for an art festival. Centered on the campus quad, it was compact and had a relaxed hustle-bustle to it.

Wean Park has different benefits. The spacious 20-acre green space is flat and wide open. It also is an equally impressive location, separated from the city but using its skyline as a backdrop.

And the big “Youngstown” sculpture, which is about 20 feet long, is a natural for tourist-y photos.

During the festival weekend, the much-anticipated George Shuba-Jackie Robinson statue area will also be open.

This year’s festival will be a bridge year for some participants who are rebuilding their brands after being forced to take a year off.

Joining the cultural groups in setting up booths at the festival will be the Youngstown Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival and the Simply Slavic Festival. Both events had to cancel this year for the second year in a row. Their presence will at least keep them on people’s mind.

Running concurrently with Summer Festival of the Arts will again be the St. Nicholas Greekfest on Walnut Street, near Choffin Career Center. All of the museums in the campus area  – The Butler, The Arms and the Steel Museum – will be open that weekend and remain just a short walk away.

Looking into the future, what else will be coming to Wean Park?

It’s unlikely that the Greater Youngstown Italian Fest will move there. It takes place on downtown streets and have no plans to move – and rightfully so. It is a street festival and the urban atmosphere is part of its charm. Simply Slavic, another downtown street fest, is taking a wait and see stance.

But JAC Management is looking at other events that would be a good fit for Wean Park.

Ken Bigley, vice president of JAC, says ideas being explored include a food truck festival, or a ribs festival. Nontraditional sporting events could even be part of the mix. It’s a unique space that deserves a chance to grow into its potential, he says.

Pictured: Wean Park, the final piece of the transformation of the downtown riverfront, will host the Summer Festival of the Arts.