PHOTO STORY: Niles Bluegrass Festival strikes chords with community

Published 1:01 pm Monday, July 12, 2021

NILES – This weekend, the area in front of the Niles Amphitheater was filled with dancers meeting with one another and laughing as they coordinated moves. Minor injuries occurred only occasionally, as the silliness took over the coordination. The dance seemed to resume as soon as musicians on stage started picking their next tune.

Families and friends, those from strollers to wheelchairs, were not deterred by the cooler, wetter weather over the weekend as the Niles Bluegrass Festival hosted by the Riverfront Optimist Club of Niles. Tunes traveled across the St. Joseph river into the surrounding neighborhoods as fiddles, banjos, guitars, harmonicas, basses and more filled the atmosphere with the southern spirit of bluegrass.

After approval on May 23 by the Niles City Council, the event was able to move forward into its planning phases. Just over a month later, the club’s organizers, including Riverfront Optimist Club of Niles President Josh Sitar, and members Tom Majerek and TJ Martin, had wrangled 13 bands to take the stage over four days. The parking lot at Riverfront Park was filled with food, craft and apparel vendors. Lines grew for elephant ears and dancing lasted into the evenings.

Sitarz was happy with how the festival went this year.

“It could always go better, but I was not expecting the turnout that we had,” he said.

He said he was not sure if people were ready to gather after a year of COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan, and the weather was rainy off and on throughout the weekend. Despite that, Sitarz said the festival captured a steady crowd all four days.

“I put a lot of hard work into [the festival]. I worked 106 hours right before the festival and did the event. It felt really good to see everyone have a good time and see it pay off,” Sitarz said.

He made it a point to listen to a few of the bands’ sets and enjoy them while he helped run the festival.

It gave him the time to start making a list of things he hopes to bring to the next events.

“I think the biggest thing we have to figure out is that we had a great crowd come down, but it was separated from the vendors and the music,” Sitarz said. “We need to do something to bring them back [together].”

This years’ planning process went more smoothly than the anticipated one for 2020’s canceled festival, as well.

“We want to do something good for the city and community and have people having a good time,” Sitarz said. “I think the city is for that too.”

He and the Riverfront Optimist Club of Niles area already looking forward to their next event in August, Riverfest, and to next year’s Niles Bluegrass Festival.

“We’ve already been planning,” Sitarz said. “We put the Bluegrass Festival on a fast track, because we had a month to plan it. Most of the vendors at Bluegrass have already planned for Riverfest.”
The Riverfront Optimist Club of Niles will be hosting Riverfest with a carnival Aug. 5-8 at Niles’ Riverfront Park and Plym Park. More information can be found at the Riverfront Optimist Club of Niles’ Facebook page.