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Editorial: Ice festival carves out niche for Niles

Published 10:32pm Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Most communities host some kind of annual festival; unfortunately, not all of them stand out. Harvest festivals, Fourth of July festivals, winter festivals — each is a town’s source of pride, whether it attracts only natives of that community or residents from an entire region.

Niles DDA Main Street’s Hunter Ice Festival, Jan. 13-15, is one example of a small-town festival done right. The event drew nearly 15,000 people to Niles last year, and garnered more than $125,000 for downtown businesses.

Ice festivals are not unusual in Michigan — Dowagiac, Plymouth, St. Joseph and Rochester, among others, have them — so the key is to offer a niche the other communities don’t.

The Niles festival’s specialty, explained DDA director Lisa Croteau, is its focus on “ice as art.”

Luring ice sculptors is one thing, but bringing on board internationally renowned, professional sculpting celebrities is quite another.

In the past couple years, the Hunter Ice Festival has hosted a segment for a Food Network ice carving show and snagged high-profile carvers who have designed work for the Super Bowl and educated amateur sculptors.

This is especially significant given the recession, which has hit Michigan particularly hard. Not all area festivals have fared as well. Local businesses have contributed through donations and sponsoring ice blocks. The City of Niles has contributed $2,500 to help promote the festival.

Oh, and the festival is free to the public.

“It’s a pricey festival,” Croteau said. “We’re growing a little bit compared to last year.”

Another way organizers are maintaining the excellent reputation of the festival is by keeping the same level of entertainment — if one event is eliminated, another is developed.

For example, the wine tent will not be set up this year. Instead, the new Olfactory Hue Bistro is hosting a beer dinner Friday, and will serve beer and wine Saturday as well.

To help generate revenue, the Hunter ice cream booth will open earlier than usual, on Monday, and a PayPal link has been set up on the festival website to make donating easier.

While the “Fire and Ice” event will not be held this year, two nights of “Ice Fights” — a sort of “speed carving” contest — are creating a buzz in the community.

So here’s hoping for another successful Hunter Ice Festival. Whether it’s bone-chilling cold or ice-melting mild, festivalgoers have shown they are willing to brave the elements to see artistry in action.

This editorial represents the views of the editorial board.

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