Saturday, July 13, 2013

A 2014 South Coast Summer Fest in doubt

Sunday morning coffee on Deer Island during the South Coast Summer Fest held late June 2013
      Amid the muted slap of small waves on the sand at the public beach in Ocean Springs, MS, five paddlers landed their kayaks on the gently sloping shore.  Their arrival on the beach after finishing a two-mile crossing of Biloxi Bay that humid Sunday morning, after a night of camping, s'mores, shish kebabs and a campfire on Deer Island, brought to a close the last scheduled event of South Coast Summer Fest: ten days and nights that attempted to turn the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula into Planet Kayak with dozens of kayak themed events on the beach and in the water.
      All types of kayaking were promoted in the late June festival.  The variety of events included kayak trips to secluded natural sites, kayaking instruction, kayak fishing demonstrations, kayak rides for children, twilight group paddles and races.  Each day of the fest, award winning film shorts about paddling the world over were screened in Biloxi.
     But this year may have been the last for the two-year old festival.
     While successful at building a "kayak community" and promoting safety on the water, the fest was not successful financially, putting a Summer Fest for 2014 in doubt, said Cynthia Ramseur, who along with Leah Bray, owns Natural Capital Development, an environmental consulting and project management company based in Ocean Springs, MS.  The firm organizes and underwrites the South Coast Summer Fest to promote eco-tourism along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
      About 40 volunteers help with event.
Leah Bray
      Communities hosting festival events were enthusiastic but over all attendance to the five free community celebrations was disappointing, Ramseur said.   Paddle trips, most of them requiring a fee and appealing to eco-tourists wanting to go birding and see wildlife in the fragile environments near the coast, attracted about as many people this year as last.  Overall about 2,000 people, most of them from the local area, attended at least one of this year's events, she said.
     A final accounting of festival revenues has not yet been made but it looks like the festival raised about $2,000 to donate to the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Ramseur said.
     The festival's fate could be decided late this summer when stake-holders in this year's fest meet to review the 2013 event, said Ramseur.
     Getting the green light for a 2014 Summer Fest is in part "up to the kayak community and if they want to support it," said Ramseur, one of three partners in South Coast Paddling Company, a kayak rental and eco-tourism business based in Ocean Springs, MS.
      However, more public money for production and publicity is the key to having a festival in 2014, Ramseur said.
     "We did not have the investment in local advertising.  We did not have paid marketing.  You have to have good financial support to run a festival this size," Ramseur said.
      Interest in kayaking along the Mississippi Gulf coast appears to be strong.  The Mississippi Kayak Meetup group, an informal Internet social network of area paddlers, has nearly 300 members in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.  Many of those members volunteered for Summer Fest, leading trips, offering kayak instruction and free kayak rides for children.
     Several kayak touring companies along the coast cater to eco-tourists who want to see the wetlands of the area and an alligator or two.  Kayak rentals are available in Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and near Ocean Springs.
      One of the highlights of the Festival was the twilight kayak parade in Pascagoula.  Ramseur said about 70 kayaks, some of them tandems, participated while 350-400 watched from shore as the group, many of them in lighted kayaks, paddled past Lighthouse Park.
     At the other end of the coast, a short paddle of the dark waters of the upper Jourdan River near Kiln, MS, a joint effort of the Mississippi Kayak Meetup group and the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club from Louisiana, attracted dozens of paddlers in canoes and kayaks.
     Unfortunately, the festival climax day, the 4th Annual Ocean Springs Kayak Festival, MS fizzled after a powerful lightning storm moved through the area the night before knocking out power in some areas.  Attendance may also have been dampened by Saturday's weather forecast: on and off thundershowers all day.
     "We had more than 3,500 in Ocean Springs last year but I think the storm the night before and the threat of storms all day Saturday keep people off the beach this year," Ramseur said.  That morning's Strawberry Moon Duathlon went off as scheduled with nearly 80 participants but other events were either canceled or went on with just a few participants as there were few in the sparse crowd sprinkled on the beach that even knew there was a festival going on. 
     Optimistic about the role a well-funded Summer Fest would play in promoting environmental tourism along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Ramseur said the festival is a great way to highlight the beauty and diversity of scenery and culture along the coast.
     "There is so much diversity in such a short coastline.  The kind of culture we have, the many's a lot like New Orleans," she said.