Jim Marsh has been spending so much time thinking about the Strawberry Festival, he says, that he sometimes gets confused about what month it is.
“We’re living in the third weekend in July already,” said Marsh, the director of the Vashon Maury Island Chamber of Commerce. “I feel like everyday my mind is so in July that I think I’m getting a suntan.”
Indeed, when Marsh took the helm at Vashon’s chamber nearly a year ago, he also took on the responsibility of planning what is by far the island’s biggest event, a three-day festival in July that consumes Vashon town, draws nearly 35,000 people to the island and brings in about half of the chamber’s annual income.
Marsh, a well-spoken former communications executive with an off-beat sense of humor, was hired shortly before last year’s festival and shadowed former director Debi Richards as she planned and executed the weekend.
“I said it was the last Strawberry Festival where I get to sit back and enjoy it because I wasn’t in it all year,” Marsh joked, sitting in his office last week. “There’s a difference when you’re planning the party and when you’re going to the party.”
The chamber’s planning for Strawberry Festival 2013 began the day after last year’s event ended, Marsh said, when chamber members met to debrief and throw out ideas for the next year. Now Marsh and Sue Stinson, the chamber’s office and events manager, have been in full swing festival planning since January. The big decisions have all been made, Marsh said, and now the smaller details — vendors, musicians, sponsors — are starting to fall into place.
“There are some details that remain unfinished ‘til the last moment and even sometimes during. It’s like any big event,” he said.
This year’s festival has brought its own set of challenges. Two of the festival’s main venues in town will be unavailable in July, leaving the chamber scrambling to find alternatives.
Construction on the Vashon Library has blocked the grassy lawns at Ober Park that normally hold a concert stage and artists’ booths. So this year the stage will be located farther back in the park, and artists will sell their wares in the parking lot in front of the chamber offices.
A local developer is also making plans to break ground this summer in the large field behind Vashon Village where the carnival is normally located, bumping the carnival to the Vashon Plaza parking lot.
“If you move one piece of the puzzle, every other piece might shift too. There are limited places to put things,” Marsh said.
But with the help of Stinson and local merchants, Marsh said, he’s pulling the jam-packed weekend together and working to bring some new elements to this year’s festival. All the Strawberry Festival staples are returning, including the parades, wine and jazz event and beer garden. The concert stages will be back, and Marsh and Pete Welch, who books the festival’s bands, are planning for even more music this year.
Marsh seemed especially excited about his campaign to put the “strawberry” back in Strawberry Festival. For years, he said, visitors have expressed confusion about the apparent lack of strawberries at the festival. Last year the chamber floated the idea of changing the festival’s name to Vashon Festival, but after a small community outcry, the idea was dropped.
Marsh was careful not give his personal opinion on the festival’s name, but said that for now the chamber has no plans to do away with “strawberry.”
“Right now it’s the zeitgeist of the island to stay Strawberry Festival,” Marsh said.
Along that vein, Marsh said, he’s instead challenging merchants to find ways to incorporate strawberries — the actual fruit or otherwise — into this summer’s activities. For instance, the chamber will offer free entry into the classic car parade to drivers who donate a jar of strawberry jam to the food bank.
“I’ve asked everybody to think strawberry,” he said. “There are so many different creative people. ... If we say let’s try to follow this theme, I think people will be surprised.”
Creative thinking has marked Marsh’s time at the chamber so far. Merchants have noted how the sometimes silly director throws out off-kilter ideas, such as installing an inflatable gorilla in town to greet drivers. His latest idea? A key to Vashon, perhaps artfully made by a local artist, to present to notable figures who visit the island, such as K.D. Lang, who played a benefit concert last fall.
“Other cities give keys to the city,” he said, holding up a sketch he made of a framed key surrounded by beach glass.
In all seriousness, Marsh said, he was happy to report that the chamber has thrived over the past year. The nonprofit organization is on firm financial footing, and thanks in part to a plan for growth created by the board under Richards, it is seeing an uptick in membership as well as an increase in member participation in its events and offerings.
“Not only do we have members coming in, but members want to do stuff and get to do stuff with each other,” he said.
Finding his stride as chamber director while also planning for his first Strawberry Festival has made for some long days at the office, he said. But it’s been a fun process, he noted, adding that he prefers to think of the chamber not as being in charge of the festival, but rather stewarding a beloved island tradition.
“It’s a big task, but it’s a joyful responsibility,” he said. “What are we responsible for? A big party. It’s not like we’re planning an invasion. It’s a big party, and that’s a great thing to be responsible for.”