With an expanded presence in downtown Reading this year, the 2017 Berks Jazz Fest brought even bigger crowds than usual to city stores and restaurants.
For years much of the jazz fest action took place at the Crowne Plaza Reading hotel in Wyomissing, but this year many of those performances shifted over to the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Reading.
According to business owners, that shift resulted in more activity downtown and less in the neighboring boroughs of West Reading and Wyomissing.
John Ernesto, jazz fest general manager, said ticket sales and attendance estimates were roughly the same as last year — an estimated 40,000 total participants — though more events were concentrated in a smaller downtown area.
The Berks Jazz fest produces a total annual economic impact of more than $5 million, according to the Berks Arts Council, which organizes and funds the event. A 2014 study shows a total economic impact of $5.03 million, 89 percent of which came from outside Berks.
This year nearly half of all 50 ticketed performances took place at the DoubleTree. Hotel manager Craig Poole described the festival in no uncertain terms.
“It was the best ever,” he said. “Feelings of family, brotherhood and joy — the excitement was beyond compare.”
Holding so many of the performances downtown encouraged guests, volunteers and musicians to spend more time together, Poole said.
“They didn’t want to go to sleep at night, and they didn’t want to leave once the festival was over,” he said.
The hotel was fully booked for most of the jazz fest and hosted shows every night. Poole said on weekends between 3,000 and 5,000 people passed through — to see a show, eat at the restaurant or stay the night. He had extra staff on hand to deal with the crowds, and said even hotel employees enjoyed the jazz fest atmosphere.
“Everyone seemed even happier than usual this year,” he said. “I’m sorry the whole world couldn’t have been here.”
Michael Leifer, a third-generation owner of Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar, said the restaurant saw more traffic than in past years — including from musicians hanging out before and after performing — most likely because people were spending more time in the city.
Karen Haver, executive director of the Berks Arts Council, said the downtown environment gave guests plenty of opportunities to socialize.
“It’s like a big family that comes and hangs out and listens to great music and has a great time,” she said. “We love being part of the energy and excitement of downtown Reading — and we hope to see that energy and excitement continue year round.”
Businesses in West Reading and Wyomissing reported a little less action than in past years when the bulk of performances took place in those communities.
Mark Woodward, owner of the West Reading Tavern, said crowd size varies depending on where shows are taking place, but overall this year’s festival brought a nice infusion of visitors through the door.
Chip White, owner of Building 24 in Wyomissing, said the jazz fest plays a significant role in boosting annual earnings, though the live music part of his business typically does no more than break even each year. White said he is considering turning away from live music events for that reason, which could result in one less venue for the 2018 jazz fest.
The festival began in 1991 as a way to draw tourists into the region during a typically slow period for local hotels. It started as just a weekend, but in 2000 organizers decided to extend the event over 10 days in celebration of the 10th anniversary.
Organizers say they would welcome continued growth, especially if that means strengthening the local economy and promoting arts and culture in their city.
“People talk negatively about Reading, but visitors come here and they love it,” Ernesto said. “They love how they’re treated — the spirit of this area, the people here and the real positive vibes they experience.”