By Malcolm Butler/Lincoln Parish Journal
Long-time Ruston residents have seen plenty of changes over the years when it comes to the Peach Festival.
Most recently the longest running agricultural festival in the state of Louisiana has been streamlined down to one weekend due to many reasons.
Coming out of Covid-19, the City of Ruston and the Ruston Convention and Visitors Bureau partnered to take over the festival — something that resided under the Chamber of Commerce umbrella for years.
Amy Stegall, Mainstreet Director and Community Coordinator for the City of Ruston, said the focus has been to stabilize — and improve — the event.
“Post-Covid we knew we were going to have to take it slow,” said Stegall. “Not only because it was post-Covid, but when we found out we were taking it over it was March of that first year. So we just wanted to do what we could do well. So we have added pieces and changed some things.
“One of the things we changed this year was moving Kids Alley. I think we are going to stick with that change. I think it worked very well. It gave us a lot of room to spread out. The kids enjoyed. The families enjoyed it. The kids entertainment stage has been a huge and fun thing for everybody.
“It was just fun to see community be community. That is really what this is about. Just making sure we have those pieces in there that we want to see. The arts and the ice cream and the music and all of those things … it just comes together in a great way.”
Although very happy with this years product, Stegall believes there is still room for improvement.
“Our goal is to eventually make it free for the entire day,” said Stegall. “That is something we are working really hard to make happen. It was a game-changer when we made the daytime free. We want to have a community event that the public can come to and enjoy without having to spend a lot of money. That’s what it is really about. Our main goal is to make the night-time part of the festival free, and we feel like we will be able to do that in the next couple of years.”
The Peach Festival has been a staple in the Ruston community for decades. Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said he remembers in the mid-1990s when the event was on the brink of possibly folding.
Walker recalls working at Ruston State Bank in 1994 when he was approached about being the chairman for the event — which was in the red financially.
“Kyle Edmiston and myself and a few others went to five different festivals and asked, ‘What do we have to do to make it successful?’, said Walker. “They said we needed to start charging and get control of the arts and crafts, and we needed to lengthen it. So we made it basically a week long.
“So when people say it was longer, the rodeo and the pageant and the softball tournament and all those types of events were held one weekend, then everything else was held the next weekend. So we went from losing $17,000 to making about $12,000. I did not want to see the Peach Festival die back then, and I sure don’t now. I think it’s thriving now.”
Since being tasked with taking charge of the event prior to 2021, Stegall and her team and members of the Ruston CVB have worked tirelessly to make it a must-attend, family-friendly event. That has meant focusing on one weekend — something that seems to have worked well based on public feedback.
Ruston Chamber of Commerce President Will Dearmon stressed the events importance to the community.
“The Peach Festival is rooted in a great deal of history,” said Dearmon. “It touches the heartstrings of families, of businesses, of visitors … anyone that knows of Ruston. It’s synonymous with a great experience. You have seen over the last couple of years since the Chamber relinquished the leadership role of the festival to the city and to the CVB, a great recreation of the festival. It’s clearly been widely successful. I see the the joint leadership between the city and the CVB supported by other local groups as the right model moving forward.
“For local businesses, there is clearly a great deal of buy-in and you saw that just with how busy downtown was and how many businesses were represented in the community event. I am excited for the future and grateful for great community partners that see the value in the festival. From the Chamber of Commerce lens, we are excited to make sure our members are engaged and see the value in this community event.”
So moving forward what does the Peach Festival look like in future years?
“The future of the Peach Festival will look very similar to what it did this year,” said Stegall. “We are excited and happy with the current footprint. We like that everything is tighter downtown, and it feels like a festival because it is not so spread out.
“We do love things like the rodeo and all of the extra things that happen in the community and that is a great part of it. But what we call the Festival proper is probably going to stay pretty similar to what it is. The reason behind that is we want it to have that community type feel and it does. We are happy with that.”
The 2024 version should see the return of the Peach Parade, something that was put on hiatus for this year due to all of the construction on streets and sidewalks in downtown Ruston.
Stegall and Walker both added that other “peachy events” sponsored by local businesses are always a welcome addition.
“Even this year there was a 5K and some other stuff,” said Stegall. “We invite community partners to do peachy events, like the pageants and the diaper derby and the 5K event. All of those events. We hope that people will get on the band wagon and do that. Those can happen anytime during that week. But the festival proper will stay that one day like it is in the park and the surrounding area downtown.”
“We are looking at bringing the tennis tournament back and bringing some sort of softball tournament back,” said Walker. “Matt (Cotton) and I talked about that a couple of months ago. It was just too late to try to put it together this year. I continue seeing it grow.”
And grow it has according to numbers from this year’s event.
“I heard about 4 p.m. that Saturday that we had already had close to 30,000 people come through, which is bigger than last year,” said Walker. “I thought it was great. The food vendors were great. The crowds were great. The music was great. To do what we do downtown with a major US highway running through it is unbelievable.”
Stegall said she received nothing but compliments from this year’s event — outside of Mother Nature providing a little too much heat and then rain during part of Saturday.
“Everything was incredibly positive,” said Stegall. “My favorite compliment one of my vendors gave us was that he has been a vendor for 30 years and this was the best festival and the most organized festival he has ever been a part of. That speaks volumes from an organizational standpoint. It feels good to know the hard work we put in paid off.”
As the Peach Festival continues to grow in popularity, parking downtown is one area that Walker said would need to be addressed.
“Due to our numbers we are going to have to look at shuttles or buses running from some of the parking lots over by Tech,” said Walker. “Once we get Monroe Street and we have the autonomous vehicles we can change that shuttle route. There are still a lot of things moving forward we can do to improve, and we plan on doing it.”