BENNINGTON -- It was estimated that between 12,000 and 13,000 people came out to Camelot Village on Saturday and Sunday for the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce's signature event. Members of the chamber commented that the event went smoothly, but could have used more volunteers.
Event emcees Michael and Matt Harrington predicted a lofty goal for the festival for next year, claiming that they will shoot for "20 for 20" -- meaning they hope for 20,000 visitors for the 20th Annual Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival.
"This event keeps growing and growing, so we need a large volunteer base," said chamber treasurer Tom Dailey. "It's growing exponentially and I know we could fit twice as many cars here."
Chamber member and festival chair Lindy Lynch said she thought the event would max out on the number of vendors this year at 180 vendors, but during the event realized that things could be arranged to bring in at least 200 to influence the festival's growth.
"Now we know we can bring in 20 more, then we'll max," Lynch said. "I know the garlic growers are the stars of the show and they do garlic festivals all over the place. They say they love ours the best but don't want us to get too big for our britches. Everybody knows everybody here, and we don't want to lose that appeal."
As the festival continues to grow as other area events have, the economic impact on the town of Bennington is quite significant.
Natasha Littrell, owner of the Crazy Russian Girls Bakery, 443 Main St., said her business needs large events several times a year to bring in tourists. Littrell said she can no longer rely on tourists walking or driving through during fall foliage or ski season because travel habits have changed.
Littrell said Garlic Fest this year made a huge impact on the bakery. "We usually close our kitchen at 4 (p.m.), but we stayed open later: Just handling all of the overflow from everyone that came out of the festival and wanted to sit down and have a meal," she said. "Sometimes people just want to sit down in air conditioning and relax."
Most Vermont visitors or passersby don't realize everything Bennington has to offer. The chamber noted that events are necessary to bring people into town that might then make a return visit.
"Generally any time there is an event in town, like the arts festival, we have a lot more visitors in Bennington, which always helps our numbers. Some read our online reviews and seek us out, but others are in town for an event and are looking to see what's around and walk around downtown," said Littrell.
Most downtown businesses become extremely busy during large events -- often too busy to afford the time to contribute to the events.
An overwhelming majority of the vendors at Garlic Fest come from out of town and out of state because Bennington businesses wouldn't have time both to stay open in town and set up shop at the festival.
Lynch said that as events like Garlic Fest and the upcoming Bennington Car Show grow in the number of people they attract, the more difficult they are to put on without a decent amount of help.
"Restaurants were packed and motels were packed," Lynch said. "You know that old silly saying, 'it takes a village?' Well, you know these events cannot continue without many hours of volunteering. I wish in a positive way that all these motel, restaurant and retail owners would maybe even just send an employee or family member to come volunteer, even just for a two-hour slot."
Many Mount Anthony Union High School students volunteer every year for the car show. Several Southern Vermont College students volunteered during the Garlic Festival this year. Dailey said the feedback from those students is that they want to be involved in the community and said it was an excellent opportunity for them to meet new people. Community members also volunteer.
"We want to thank them, but you know: The car show is right around the corner and we need more help," Lynch said. "You get to meet new people and get to know your community, and volunteers live longer."
The chamber had a list with 200 volunteer slots for Garlic Fest, of which barely half were filled.
The car show, which will take place at Willow Park Friday, Sept. 12, through Sunday, Sept. 14, will have more cars this year than ever and attract upwards of 4,000 people. Volunteers are still needed.
Lynch, who is also the co-owner of Kevin's Sports Pub and Restaurant in North Bennington, said volunteering presents solid opportunities for marketing one's business.
"I understand: I am a restaurant owner. I haven't been to work in a week and I have been volunteering for years, but as a business owner: When somebody walks out that gate and asks where is a good place to eat, of course I have them in my back pocket. Cross marketing is very important, and we aren't going to stop business owners from doing so," she said.
The car show is an event coordinated by the chamber, the Bennington Rotary Club, the NorShaft Lions Club, the Catamount Rotary Club, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Bennington Lions Club. Every organization is supposed to come up with a portion of volunteers for the event, but the chamber always has to backfill.
To learn more about volunteering for the upcoming Bennington Car Show, visit www.benningtoncarshow.com, or call the chamber office at 802-447-3311.