Valiant last stand for Summer Lights Festival this Saturday on King Street

KITCHENER — After two years of COVID interruptions, it’s a return to form, but there will be a bittersweet tinge when the ninth annual Summer Lights Festival returns to Kitchener’s downtown Saturday for what — barring a sudden surge in sponsorship — will be the last time.

“It’s just a really big project and it takes money,” says director Charlene Le Duc, who conceived this “sweetheart” festival in 2014 as an eclectic community block party slathered in arts and culture.

“At the end of the day, we need to expand.”

While many sponsors have returned, others were lost during the pandemic and not enough new ones stepped up to justify another year of planning for this massive late spring blowout that brings 15,000 people to King Street between Young and Queen.

“Coming out of COVID, it takes time to build new relationships,” explains Le Duc, who confirms reasons for the festival’s departure are purely financial.

“There’s a bustle. It’s tiring and sometimes challenging. As it stands, we’re retired, but never say never.”

She figures the festival — which features more than 60 performers, artists and businesses — needs $20,000 to $30,000 per year to maintain its current growth curve: “What I would love is for three companies to come along and say here’s $4,000 or $5,000 per year for the next three years.”

In the meantime, Saturday’s farewell bash will unfold with its usual mix of pop art, music and singalongs, bolstered by bracelet making, buskers, balloon installations, board games, video games, card games, patios, ping pong, musical chairs, magic shows , lemon twisters, chalking, DJs, drag performers, hula hoops and foosball.

“There’s nothing else like it,” says Le Duc. “It’s a block party under the stars. There’s no formula. It’s ethereal, a moment in time with really cool experiences. It resonates with people.”

There’s an irony in Summer Lights ending this year, when all indications are that, as COVID winds down, people are more eager than ever to engage in a public setting.

“I’m super proud and reflective of what we’ve done in the course of nine years,” says Le Duc. “I wish we had more time and could get more support to keep it going for a community that needs it more than ever.”

But she’s a realist at heart. In a post-COVID world, or whatever this is, she knows people — and businesses — are struggling.

And as she prepares for Summer Lights valiant last stand Saturday, 8 pm to midnight, she’s determined to make it one for the history books.

“There’s an appetite and demand to go out,” she says. “This festival is all about experiences, about having a block party in our neighborhood and just bringing people together, having fun and making some joy.”

She laughs: “Just get your feet right on King Street.”

The future, she figures, will sort itself out.

“The Summer Lights brand will stay around,” she says of post-COVID reality.

“People are really trying to focus on helping others. We’ll find ways to bring goodness to the community in smaller forms under the arts and culture umbrella.”

For those who prefer goodness in the form of a giant block party with drag performers and foosball under the stars, email your sponsorship intentions to chitchat@summerlights.ca

For festival information, go to www.summerlightsfestival.com

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