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Food + Wine Festival – Great Event, Wrong Venue

Lee Walton

For the second time in two weeks, Peninsula Charleston has hosted major back-to-back tourism festivals and, once again, these events have demonstrated that too much of a good thing in a small, ill-equipped location can be just that – too much! Even before the dust of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition settled on the all too downtrodden pathways of Marion Square, it was again covered from edge-to-edge by a village of tents, vendor trailers and port-a-potties for the next onslaught of hungry and thirsty revelers eager to sample the many tasty tidbits of Charleston’s renowned cuisine.

After a very soggy, stormy start at Thursday’s opening night Gala, what were left of the poor field’s dormant grass lawns became pathways of mud between the tents for most of Friday. When the relentless crowds of ticket holders showed up Saturday, it was like trying to cram ten pounds into the proverbial five-pound sack. Nonetheless, by all accounts, the early birds and the patient were rewarded with great food, fine wines and entertaining demonstrations by some of the Lowcountry’s greatest chefs.

With their second annual Food + Wine Festival at least “under their belt”, one must hope that the planners of this event now realize two very important facts about outdoor events in Charleston: March weather is problematic for big crowds in tents, and Marion Square is too small to comfortably accommodate half the crowd that showed-up this past Saturday afternoon. Also, with all due respects to Festival Chairwoman Nathalie Dupree, when you’re serving fine food and wine at an outdoor event in downtown Charleston on a Saturday afternoon, you very well should “…anticipate that everyone would think they could get lunch at 12.” What was “everyone” suppose to do – eat before they came?

Ms. Dupree, like others “from off” who plan public events in Charleston, often fail to consider the unique scale of successful festivals in the Lower Peninsula; they’re like big garden parties at someone’s historic home. Except, in this case, the “home” was the City itself and the “garden” was Marion Square. The genteel, mannerly attitude of festival attendees here, like the petite, well bred and fine-boned scale of the streets, city blocks and public green spaces on the Peninsula, can’t be scaled-up to accommodate crowds greater than the finite carrying capacity of each existing venue. Inevitably, attempts to do so risk losing the uniquely intrinsic synergy that makes successful Charleston festivals so attractive. This one-of-a-kind combination of pedestrian friendly scale, architecture, historical background, climate and ambience can’t be bottled, copied, transported or expanded beyond its limiting, self-imposed boundaries. Those who try, often do so at their peril and spoil the very qualities they’re trying to replicate on a larger scale.

Unfortunately, for the Food + Wine Festival, there is little hope of finding a single larger alternative green space within easy walking distance of the majority of hotels in the Lower Peninsula. Given the unpardonable loss of Ansonburough Field to the onslaught of deal-estate development, there are no other comparable locations below Huger Street. If synergy and finite critical mass are essential to insuring this festival’s future success, downsizing to “cut the pie to fit the pan” may be the only practical alternative.

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