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.