by Aaron Layman
The Vinton Dogwood Festival has come a long way in the Roanoke area. Originating from a William Byrd High School Marching Band fundraiser to buy uniforms, it has grown over the years from a humble town event to a four-day extravaganza with a carnival and countless performers, drawing people from all over Southwest Virginia. On the eve of the 56th festival, many community members are reflecting on just what the festival means to the town.
Mayor Brad Grose is quick to point out that the drive behind the festival comes from the community itself. While the town supports the festival with both financial aid and assistance from public works, “traditional leaders in the community have been the ones who have sat on the festival committee.” He notes that the festival is made up of all volunteers, stressing the work done to “stage everything the way that they do.”
Vinton Town Manager Chris Lawrence considers the festival one of the best unifying forces in the town: “It’s really one of the biggest things that defines Vinton. The Dogwood is basically our brand. It’s a testament to how strong our community is.” Dogwood festivities symbolize the kickoff for the town’s spring and summer activities, says Lawrence, emphasizing that there are special events going on almost every week after the Dogwood Festival up through Halloween: “We’re a small town of festivals.”
Among this year’s events are a 5K run, a craft show and a bike rally, complete with an eardrum-shaking “loud pipes” contest. For the youngsters, there’s a carnival that runs all four days (next Thursday through Sunday) along with a “Kid’s Zone” on Friday with inflatables, games and visitors from both Mill Mountain Zoo and the Salem Red Sox. Music lovers can take in the sounds of rising Country Top 40 breakout Steve Holy, along with local groups like “The Young Rockers,” “7 Mile Ford” and the bluegrass group “Acoustic Endeavors.”
Musical guests and the Festival parade (next Saturday) attract not only the immediate town citizens, but a wide range of regional festival goers. Grose says that he often hears of Cave Spring and Salem residents venturing across the valley to take in the festivities. Those attending aren’t limited, however, to the immediate Roanoke region. Last year, Grose explains, he met a couple that had been coming down from Covington for several years: “That means there’s something special here.”
The highlighting of a tight community isn’t the only benefit that the festival provides. Business often benefits both directly and indirectly. Grose claims that many local establishments have very good days in terms of business volume. Jeff Janney of Vinton Appliance is a large booster of the festival because of the exposure it allows. Janney claims that he’s often had customers come in several months later who live outside the town limits but remember seeing his business during the festival. Woods Auto Center dives in headfirst into the festival events by holding the annual bike rally at its Washington Avenue location.
Lawrence says the festival allows Vinton to show off its center district, allowing out-of-towners to take note of a downtown corridor that features restaurants, retail shops and a florist that they might otherwise drive right by during most days.
Even though vendors and the parade may block off the downtown streets that potential customers would otherwise use for business parking, Janney takes a relaxed tack to being inconvenienced. “The exposure for downtown Vinton is well worth losing some of that day’s business that you can reschedule to another day,” he says, relating that customers don’t usually buy large appliances on impulse any ways. “I’m all for it . . . for all of our businesses.”
While Lawrence estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are expected to attend the festival over four days, he stresses that modest charm of the festival makes it the long-lived attraction that it is. With the carnival and the crowning of a high school Dogwood Queen, he adds, “it’s about as small-town America as you can get.”
See vintondogwoodfestival.org for more information and a complete schedule of events for April 27-May 1.