As the City headed towards its 15th year birthday in 1983 I conceived the idea of a multi-day festival to coincide with that anniversary. Working with other department staff I put together a concept of activities to include in a 3-day festival for mid-July that I chose to call Sterling Heights Summerfest. I along with some of my co-workers pitched the idea, I believe, in January 1983 to Mr. Chappelle during a staff meeting held at his home where he was recovering from back surgery. Following his approval of the concept we proceeded to work out the details and presented the very first Sterling Heights Summerfest on July 14, 15 & 16, 1983.
I knew that Summerfest had to have something different, fun and exciting to kick it off if we were going to attract a lot of attention and ultimately become a mainstay event in the community.
We already had been presenting Thursday night Music in the Park concerts for a few years. I had taken over responsibility of the series in the summer of 1981 and I figured that would be a good place to start. To generate excitement I decided to have a huge helium balloon launch to kick-off Summerfest at the Thursday concert with one of the more popular Detroit-area bands, Steve King & the Dittilies. Staff and volunteers spent nearly 8-hours that Thursday leading up to concert time, filling balloons with helium and tying a string to each of them. We filled more than 3,000 balloons.
About 20 minutes before the start of the 7:30 pm concert the staff and volunteers gathered groups of helium balloons and handed them out to all the people in the audience. Needless to say those in the audience were thrilled. Most of them knew about the mass helium balloon launch, but they had no idea they would be the ones to launch them. As the countdown progressed to zero the whole crowd was chanting down the numbers, and then, off they went, most of them anyway. Turns out kids don’t like to let go of their balloons. But it was a sight to behold as the mass of balloons rose into the sky gently floating east. Steve King & the Dittilies then started their show and the legacy of Sterling Heights Summerfest had begun.
I have included a sampling of photos from that first Summerfest in July 1983. These give just a taste of what the 3-days in the middle of a Michigan July was like in the beginning. That first concert on Thursday we had a beautiful night. The remaining two days were hot! But, we had the festival – the Friday night DJ Dance Party, the Saturday demonstrations, music and other activities. We as a department solidified our strength as a team and as friends. Each subsequent year Summerfest got bigger, we experimented with activities, we refined events, and we joined forces after a few years with the new Community Relations Department to cooperatively create the Art Fair. We all did a lot of work, but we sure had a lot of fun.
When I left the City of Sterling Heights in January 1996, Sterling Heights Summerfest was firmly planted as the premier event in the community as well as in the region. The thirteen years I managed the event were some of the best of my long career in the parks and recreation profession. I am incredibly pleased and humbled to see each year that the event has grown tremendously, involves so many organizations beyond the City, yet they all function smoothly, as least as I see it from the outside it does. I hope to return to Michigan for the 2018 Sterlingfest. I figure that would be a really good time, 35 years later, to see for myself what has become of my “baby” and wander about as an on-looker, taking it all in, just one more time.