It would be safe to say that the Chestertown Spy staff were not the only ones worried about the dramatic changes the Sultana Education Foundation was making for its beloved Downrigging festival this year.
Over 18 years, the Downrigging has become the one event, for many, that successfully captured the true essence of Chestertown’s ethos with its unique blend of history, culture, scholarship, and sense of fun. And while The Spy understood the Sultana’s thinking that Downrigging had to evolve, there was an unspoken fear that this effort to upgrade and expand its programming, including the formal addition of dozens of bluegrass performances, would radically and permanently change the tone and climate of this town’s beloved fall weekend.
There was good reason for that anxiety. Sultana has been the pride and joy of Chestertown since 1997. Beyond pursuing its mission of connecting “people to the Chesapeake Bay’s history, ecology, and culture,” it has also evolved into being intertwined with the best elements of Chestertown itself; a subtle, sophisticated community proud of its heritage and intellectual curiosity.
So when we heard over the summer that the Sultana’s leadership had decided to shake things up for the 2019 Downrigging, it was sometimes hard to suppress the thought that while the board and staff motives were understandable, a Downrigging 2.0 concept was messing with success.
It is human nature to protect the things we love, and the idea of Downrigging morphing into a music festival was seen as a perilous proposition. While there was considerable sympathy with the fact that Sultana has lost money on this fantastic and expensive weekend of nautical programming since 2001, there were countless examples of town festivals losing their identity and purpose in their attempt to become more “hip” to expand attendance.
Undoubtedly, Sultana leaders also knew there was an inherent risk in offering a new Downrigging experience. Drew McMullen, president of the organization, along with its board members, had built this successful organization by being known for a “steady Eddie” culture, and a mature approach to change. The shift for Downrigging 2019 was seen as a bit out of character.
But like almost everything the Sultana has done since its inception, the new and improved Downrigging was a smashing success. Not only did it keep its cultural foundation in tack, but the addition of bluegrass also led to record-breaking attendance last weekend. Over 3,000 flocked to the new performance village, downtown retailers saw unprecedented traffic in their shops, restaurants and bars were full, and visitors were left amazed by the beauty of the new Cerino Center at the Chestertown Marina.
The take-home message after this remarkable weekend is two-fold. One is that taking this kind of risk pays off. The second is the reminder that never second guess the Sultana Education Foundation.
Letters to Editor
Janet Brandon says
Wonderful commentary by the editor/chief factotum! Much appreciate this wondrous publication. Keep on keeping on. I am happy to have contributed a few $ to your efforts.
Henry Immanuel says
Just to give an idea to all that just because something looks successful does not mean that it does not need improvement. The overall success of this year was based on weather, and not just on the organizational skills that were involved.
The greatest problem this year and for any future years that try to duplicate the success of this year is to reflect on how the change is affecting the community. What made this event a great event in the past was that Chestertown and everyone was invited! Song, Dance, Food, under the tent. Creating a pay for view event is down right inhospitable and creates what this event never had before, an event that now excludes individuals, families of the broad community, who may not be able to afford what should be a public event.
This event now is for people who can afford to be on the inside, even to get food. Certainly the event was touted as being a Fund Raiser!, the future created by a Fund Raiser like this is certainly only an event that will only reflect how Money can now exclude folks who do not have the dollars to take their families to an event like this. This event has been what I have always loved it, an event that commingled all walks of life, and now it is working in an opposite path. How many Fund Raisers can you have? To take away an event like this from the public at large by means of an extreme entrance fee defies how I would think Chestertown is working to create a “Public Event”.
I for one think, that the decision to have this event caged in, and charging the Big Dollars is wrong!, this is a Family event, that is now going to be for the Folks with Money, and not for Working families to enjoy the Sultana Down Rigging event under the Big Tent. Imagine how the last years have been always inclusive of all walks of life, enjoying Dance, Food, and the Mayor playing his tunes! That is an Event that makes a Community a Community!
signed Henry Immanuel