SouthamptonFest: Standing Up for the Village

Keith Leaf juggles for passers-by as he walks along Main Street during the 2018 SouthamptonFest. Michael Heller photo

On the cusp of its ninth year in existence, SouthamptonFest has become one of the most successful and highly anticipated festivals of the fall season on the East End. Its success has been a team effort, with several people from the village donating their time, energy and expertise over the years, but three local business owners have been particularly instrumental in making the event a popular destination for people of all ages.

Mark Parash, the owner of Sip N’ Soda on Hampton Road, Keith Davis, who owns The Golden Pear on Main Street, and Erin Meaney, who owns Topiaire Flower Shop on Jobs Lane, have been key players in festival planning and coordinating over the years, all bringing different skills to the table to make it work.

Meaney has not been as deeply involved in the planning and organization for the event in recent years, but she was very important in getting it off the ground. In its inaugural year, Meaney went door to door, visiting local merchants in the village and asking for their help and participation in the event. Her efforts raised $10,000 and made it possible for the village to put on the event in the first year, when it was called SeptemberFest.

“We wanted the merchants to be involved, and it worked because it was really nice the first year,” she said. “Somehow, we got it off the ground.”

Meaney admitted that it was a little dicey in the first year, from a fundraising standpoint, simply because it was a new event. But over the years, more and more sponsors jumped in, joining both the local businesses who contributed what they could, along with bigger entities like Wells Fargo Bank, which was one of the first larger sponsors of the fall festival.

Meaney is still a source of great ideas for spicing up the festival and adding new features, according to others involved. The committee got a nice boost when Parash joined three years ago. He describes himself as a “kid at heart,” and has been largely responsible for adding interactive and exciting events for kids and children. Last year, Main Street was closed, which allowed members of Southampton Soccer Club and the Southampton High School boys varsity basketball team to show off some skills on the street. There was also a synthetic ice rink set up, allowing people a chance to shoot on a goal. This year, the organizers decided that shutting down Jobs Lane would be a better option, because it will allow visitors to the event to be closer to other activities going on at the Southampton Arts Center and at Agawam Park.

Erin Meaney, Mark Parash and Julie Fitzgerald

Parash exudes energy and enthusiasm for the event, and his pride in his hometown is clear. He lives in the house he grew up in, with his wife and two children, who attend school in Southampton. Their home is within walking distance of Sip and Soda. Helping make the festival as good as it can be was a no-brainer for him.

“The goal is to have everybody, from a kid in a stroller to a grandparent, having fun and sharing something together,” he said.

“It’s something we can be proud of,” he added. “And Southampton deserves to be proud after being beat up with all the vacant stores and all of that. We want to show that after August is over, we still have some really great things going on.”

“For me, it’s a way to give back,” he said. “The village has been good to me my whole life, and if I don’t return the favor, I’m not being responsible to the community.”

Meaney shared similar sentiments and said that trying to bolster visibility and support for local businesses like her Topiaire flower shop on Jobs Lane — which has been in business for 29 years — is one of the primary goals of SouthamptonFest. Remaining profitable in the offseason can be a struggle, one that has spelled defeat for several businesses over the years, especially with the more recent proliferation of pop-up shops in the village. It’s a contrast to when she was growing up, and shops would simply close during the offseason.

With year-round viability being key these days, events like SouthamptonFest add flare in what is now referred to as “shoulder” seasons rather than “off” seasons. It’s an important element to Davis as well, whose primary contribution to the festival has been coordinating the food-related aspects of the event, particularly the popular chowder contest. He said adding a chowder contest was something he wanted to do because he saw the success of a contest at HarborFest in Sag Harbor. Last year, there were more than 20 different chowders, with more than 400 people voting. Chef Anthony from Paul’s Restaurant in Southampton was the winner for the third time last year. Davis has been his main rival, with Golden Pear’s chowder winning twice.

Davis said he was glad that this year’s festival will be in September again, and he gave credit to everyone involved for making it better and better every year.

“It’s really developed into a fun, well managed and well-run event,” he said.

Contributions from a wide range of people have made that possible. While some, like Meaney, may not be as deeply involved now as they were at the start, their contributions are still important. Parash and Julie Fitzergald — the event’s coordinator who works in the mayor’s office — both credit her for still coming up with exciting and fresh ideas year after year. Meaney agreed, saying Fitzgerald is like the glue who holds the festival together from a planning standpoint, while adding that Parash’s ideas have breathed new life into the program. Meaney also credited Davis with making the chowder contest an integral part of the event. Meaney also said that Fitzgerald and Karen Connolly, the executive director of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, have been instrumental in securing sponsorships, without which the event simply would not be possible.

Meaney, Davis and Parash all credited Fitzgerald as the person behind the scenes who brings it all together, coordinating meetings and handling marketing and promotional materials and also helping to book musical acts. For her part, Fitzgerald said that the committee is a good mix of people with a range of expertise, which is what has made the festival dynamic and exciting every year, instead of too predictable.

She said she is excited that this year will mark a return to a September date for the festival for the first time in two years. The festival took place in October over the last two years, mainly to avoid scheduling conflicts with other festivals on the East End, but after two years of sub-par weather, they decided to move back to the September slate.

For Fitzgerald, SouthamptonFest serves two distinct purposes.

“One is to highlight the arts district and cultural organizations,” she said. “And two is to bring attention to the shoulder seasons just starting after Labor Day. We’re trying to bring attention to the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful times of year.

“To me, SouthamptonFest weekend provides a true sense of community,” she said. “You see everybody, and it’s a great mix of people, from year-rounders to summers residents, and it highlights what Southampton is all about. We get to see Southampton at its best.”