Leelanau News and Events

The Polka Fest Is Moving

By Emily Tyra | April 2, 2020

BREAKING: The Leelanau Ticker has learned that the Cedar Polka Fest will move from June for the first time since 1982. Within a span of 24 hours this week, Polka Fest co-chairs Lisa Rossi-Brett and Rich Nachazel, along with the festival’s eight board members, made the decision to move the 39th annual festival to September 17-20, 2020.

“Unanimously, we decided it made more sense to reschedule than to cancel. The concern was even if by some miracle we could still have it in June, we would still have crowd fear — and that would be a bigger financial risk,” says Rossi-Brett.

Polka Fest board member Pam Novak is also president of the Cedar Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the festival. She says they were all wondering not if, but when they would need to pull the plug for June. “When Lisa came back with the real possibility of these dates in September, we said, ‘why not?’ September is still a beautiful month for weather.” She adds that keeping the festival for 2020 was especially crucial, “because everything that we do for Polka Fest, we do for our community.”

Polka Fest admission proceeds fund year-round charity work and community projects in Cedar.

“Last year we gave over $42,000 back to the community,” says Rossi-Brett, who is in her second year as the Polka Fest co-chair. “Our goal for this year was $60,000 but we will now be happy with any profit. The chamber decides as group decide how it will be distributed.”

In the past it has meant donations to Cedar Area Fire & Rescue, jointly owned by Centerville, Cleveland, Kasson and Solon townships; emergency funds for Cedar families in need; and college scholarships for graduating seniors at Glen Lake Schools. Polka Fest proceeds also pay for the village’s streetscapes, flowers, and holiday lights. Rossi-Brett adds that the state funding expected for the Cedar River Marina project is now on hold, due to redirecting money to coronavirus relief efforts, so that nonprofit could be among this year’s recipients. 

She says finding a new date hinged on the availability of the sound technicians and of rental of the “Big Tent," which is erected on top of the Cedar tennis courts and hosts nightly dancing and live polka acts, performances by authentic Polish dance troupes and Sunday mass. “We also needed a time when there were no other competing Polish festivals — such as the Grand Rapids Polish Festival or the Posen Potato Festival — that would affect the people that travel, and especially our Polish vendors and our bands.”

Vendors at the Polka Fest sell everything from traditional Polish handiwork, to pitchers of Polish beer and cocktails, pierogies and kielbasa.

Both Pleva’s Meats and Srodek’s Campau Quality Meats from Hamtramck are back this year, as is Valentine Distilling Co. in Ferndale. Founder Rifino Valentine is originally from Cedar and is a Glen Lake graduate. “Currently they have stopped making spirits and they are making hand sanitizer, but they will be here,” says Rossi-Brett.

Polka Fest sponsors are on board with the move to September, she says. “Eyes Only Media [which publishes The Leelanau Ticker, The Ticker, Northern Express and the Traverse City Business News] has been helpful working with me to explore options for keeping the festival. Leelanau Sands Casino said, ‘we are behind you,’ and RE/MAX Bayshore will be there for monetary support and on our kids day with free tethered hot air balloon rides. Image360, our print sponsor, had not yet started printing materials because of the shelter in place mandate, so it is blessing in disguise we can still update everything.”

The Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office was also at the top of Rossi-Brett's list of phone calls to make. “They work so closely to make sure the public is safe. That support is huge, and they are behind us,” she says. BATA, which provides transportation loops in Traverse and Leelanau during the festival, is also on board.

She expects both long-established and new events to proceed as planned on the new dates: the car show will return in September, as will the annual Saturday parade, a Firefighters Pancake Breakfast, Saturday Kids Day, Veterans Tribute Night, a new First Responders Night, the Cedar Run 4 the Kielbasa on Saturday morning, and a new Sunday craft fair. 

Novak is keen to spread the word, as many people, especially locals who have moved away, return annually to attend the Polka Fest. “It is like a big class reunion,” she says.

Last year the festival drew 8,000 people. “This year we were expecting over 10,000,” says Rossi-Brett. “I’m not sure how the date change will affect that. But our data tells us is a local event — 80 percent of our guests are local. This is such a longstanding tradition; we were absolutely gutted to think we would need to cancel.”

She adds, “This breathed new life into us. It’s something to look forward to now and I hope all of our guests feel the same way.”

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