Festival maestro keeps an island tradition in tune

Jim Marsh’s job is to make sure that Vashon’s biggest event of the year runs like a top.

Jim Marsh, executive director of Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce, can often be spotted during the festival wearing a bright safety vest as he bicycles between events (Pete Welch Photo).

Jim Marsh, executive director of Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce, can often be spotted during the festival wearing a bright safety vest as he bicycles between events (Pete Welch Photo).

For Jim Marsh, Vashon’s annual Strawberry Festival is about so much more than a parade and elephant ears.

Marsh is the affable executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce, which presents the festival each year as a fundraiser for its organization. Since his hire in 2012, Marsh has been tasked with working with island businesses, volunteers, vendors, contractors and permitting agencies to make sure Vashon’s biggest event of the year runs like a top.

This weekend, from Friday, July 19 to Sunday, July 21, Marsh will be easy to spot — he’ll be the middle-aged, blond and bespectacled man wearing an orange safety vest, purposefully pedaling on his bicycle from one festival location to the next.

Working with the Chamber’s large and active volunteer board of directors and the Chamber’s events manager, Jennifer Potter, Marsh is the maestro of all things Strawberry Festival.

Helming the event is no easy task, he said, in a recent interview, given as final preparations for the 2019 festival took place. Behind his desk at the Chamber, Marsh spoke about the weight of responsibility he feels to uphold a beloved island tradition.

“When I got this job, I freaked out because when I was at Thriftway in July, I heard people greeting each other with ‘happy festival’ in the same way that people say ‘Merry Christmas,’” Marsh said. “In no other job has what I’ve done been elevated to holiday status — and that’s a lot of pressure.”

Each year, Marsh said, the Strawberry Festival brings more than 30,000 people to the island. It’s an influx that requires coordination with 12 government agencies — including the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, the King County Department of Local Services and the King County Department of Health — that help regulate safety and logistics for the event.

According to Marsh, last year’s festival boasted 138 booths filled by on- and off-island vendors that included commercial businesses, island nonprofits, food service operators and local artists. A similar number will take part this year, he said, with local vendors outnumbering outsiders.

Music by dozens of local music acts — always a draw for the festival — will be heard on five stages this year, thanks to the Chamber’s longtime collaboration with Vashon Events, which expertly books the acts and handles the logistics of all the shows. And as usual, a grand parade will be held on Saturday morning, followed by a car parade on Sunday.

The festival’s beverage garden, Marsh said, will also have a distinctly local flavor, with offerings all coming from Vashon breweries, wineries and cider mills.

Throughout the course of the festival, islanders will also have the opportunity to open their wallets to support island causes.

“The Chamber’s fundraiser is also a fundraiser for fundraisers,” Marsh said.

Most notable among these is Vashon’s unofficial mayor race, during which candidates collect “votes” for $1 donations to island nonprofits. This year’s candidates include Vashon’s incumbent mayor, Goliath, a 7-year-old Newfoundland therapy dog whose candidacy is stage-managed by Vashon Community Care. Goliath’s furry and feathered challengers include another dog, Kit, benefiting Vashon Island Pet Protectors, and Henrietta, a hen who represents Jill’s Animals Rescue.

Two mythological beings are also in the race. Islander Lyanne Politte is running as Eirene, the Goddess of Peace, on behalf of Vashon’s DOVE Project. And George Eustice, long known for his participation in island Christmas celebrations, is running as Santa Claus on behalf of the Vashon Senior Center. Marsh said that last year, the mayoral contest raised $11,000 for participating nonprofits.

“Nobody loses by doing the mayor’s race,” Marsh said.

He also pointed out, too, that the festival’s annual pancake breakfast will raise money for the Vashon’s Sportsmen’s Club, and that proceeds from the festival’s annual Bill Burby Run and Walk go to support sports programs in Vashon schools as well a scholarship for a graduating Vashon High School senior.

All in all, independent fundraisers held during the festival raise approximately $20,000 a year for local causes, he said.

None of this would be possible, added Marsh, without the support of almost 200 volunteers and the broader community.

“It’s not the Chamber’s event,” he said. “We’re in charge of it because somebody has to be. Somebody has to pay the insurance, file the permits and think about where people are going to go to the bathroom. But we’re in a unique position to do those things, and once we set it up, we ask, ‘What do people want to do?’”

Marsh said he has always welcomed input from businesses and the general public about the festival.

“I always hear two things after every festival, which are, ‘It’s not like it used to be,’ and ‘This was the best festival ever,’’’ he said with a laugh. “How do you address those two things? Do you listen to both? What I’ve done is say to the people who think it has gone downhill, ‘What do you want it to be?’ Then I figure out a way to make that happen. And if somebody tells me it was great, I ask, “What worked?’”

Two ongoing issues — recycling and carnivals — have dogged Marsh during his tenure.

Marsh said that in recent years, the Chamber has tried varied approaches to collecting recycling during the festival, working with organizations including Zero Waste Vashon, but has had mixed success.

“A single person at home or in their office is very responsible for recycling, putting things in the right bins,” he said. “But when you get a crowd, it all turns into garbage.”

This year, Marsh is working with islander Diane Emerson, a consultant on sustainability practices, on a different approach. He has tasked Emerson with hiring a cadre of workers to sort and clean recyclables that can be dropped off at stations along the festival route.

In terms of a carnival — a regular feature of the festival until 2014, when it was dropped by Marsh after a last-minute contract dispute with the company that brought rides and attractions to Vashon — he has also sought to listen to islanders and provide alternatives for those looking for children’s activities at the festival.

Marsh said that two years ago, he had tasked islanders who had objected to the elimination of the carnival with finding a way to bring it back, until they too became discouraged by the logistics, issues and costs involved in a bringing the carnival back to the festival.

“We don’t use the ‘c-word’ anymore here,” Marsh said.

This year, he said, the Chamber has contracted with a company called Bubble Fun to bring a number of attractions to the parking lot of Vashon Theatre, including a climbing wall, Euro-bungees, a bouncy house, a bubble attraction and an obstacle course.

“Some people really appreciate that their kid is not spending $50 on rides and cotton candy and trying to win something,” he said of his decision to replace the carnival with these kinds of activities. “You can do that other places, but Vashon is different.”

Marsh is also excited to once again host booths from local artists and craftspeople at the Village Green, with a flagship booth operated by Gather Vashon, a shop that represents local artists. Also, new this year will be aerial performances by teachers and students of UMO’s School of Physical Arts on the festival’s Ober Park stage.

“What I’m most proud of is that when any business or group has come up and said they want to do something at the festival, I want to make make sure that happens,” said Marsh. “This year it is aerial performances — we’ve never had that before, and how many aerialists are there on the island? There’s a ton of them. That should be part of the festival and so we’re doing that.”

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