SolarFest obtains provisional permit from Village officials

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MANCHESTER VILLAGE >> One of Vermont's longest running celebrations of solar power and renewable energy could be calling the Southern Vermont Arts Center a home for its annual 3-day festival this coming July.

SolarFest, which for the past 20 years has been a platform for renewable energy advocates, vendors, and artists, has obtained a provisional permit to hold its annual event from the village's board of trustees following a presentation made on Monday, Jan. 4.

Event organizers still need to firm up plans for parking arrangements, fire protection and ensure all neighboring property owners are on board before a full permit will be issued, said Michael Bailey, a member of SolarFest's board of trustees and one of the presenters at Monday's meeting, which was held in the village offices. He is also a member of a special transition committee the festival drew up to find a new location for the event, which has been held in Middletown Springs, Poultney and most recently at a farm in Tinmouth since 1995.

"After all the research, we came up with the fact that Manchester was the best place for us to find a new home," he said in a phone interview. "The arts center — there's a natural partnership here with the overlap of missions."

The village trustees gave the proposal their unanimous approval for the provisional permit, he added.

The event is scheduled to take place July 15-17, Bailey said.

The festival needed to find a new home when the event's organizers were told the property in Tinmouth, where the last full-blown SolarFest was held in 2014 — a smaller event was also held there last year — would no longer be available. The last full weekend event in 2014 attracted 2,300 attendees over the course of the weekend. Their average attendance since 2008 has been about 3,000 weekend visitors.

With the changes in location and in programming, they are projecting about 500 people on hand for the opening day on Friday, July 15, growing to 1,500 on Saturday, July 16, and then declining to about 750 people on Sunday, July 17, for a total of 2,750 visitors, he stated in an email message to The Journal.

The SolarFest presentation last Monday was largely well-received, said Andrea Ross, a member of the village's board of trustees.

"It's obviously a great thing for our town," she said. "It will bring people here that wouldn't necessarily come here and it's great for SolarFest because it will attract people from here who wouldn't ordinarily venture out to Middletown Springs."

Before granting the final approval for the event, board wants to be sure all the safety and parking issues have been thought through, while signalling their support for the proposal, she said.

"I just wanted to be really assured by them that the traffic between West Road and the top of the hill was minimal," she said, referring to the layout of the arts center, which has its main campus at the top of a winding two-lane access road slightly less than a mile from its main entrance on Manchester West Road. "It's not Woodstock — this is a family-friendly event. Their experience in Middletown Springs has been minimal-to-no trash left behind and very conscious of the environment."

Village officials didn't see any large concerns that would block the eventual issuance of the final permit, said Brian Knight, the chairman of the village trustees.

"SolarFest wanted to be sure this was something the Village would welcome — and we do," he said. "With that sort of assurance they were going to go ahead and have their meetings with the fire marshal and everyone else to make sure this was an absolutely safe environment for everyone."

In addition to vendors and suppliers involved in the renewable energy field, the festival also includes workshops, speaker events and educational displays, according to an overview fact sheet distributed at Monday's meeting. There is also an arts component, which in the past has included some well-known musical talent, with artists that have included Lukas Nelson, the son of famed country singer Willie Nelson and an emerging star in his own right, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Roomful of Blues and Grammy winner Bill Miller.

The arts center venue will be a good fit for the festival, said Robert McCafferty, the president of its board of trustees, noting the arts component embedded in the festival. The arts center's Wilson Museum, the Arkell Pavilion, a 400-seat enclosed stage and concert area, and the other buildings on the center's main campus made for a good venue for SolarFest.

"The interest from our point-of-view is looking at the arts and cultural events that could broaden the utilization of our campus and we thought the use is compatible," he said. "There is an arts aspect to the whole thing but it's also a very relevant use and a growing area of interest in terms of alternative energy sources."

According to the application submitted to the village trustees, plans call for parking areas to be set up towards the front of a large field alongside West Road where currently several large outdoor sculptures sit. A tent camping area would be situated further up the field and alongside the access road to the main campus of the arts center. Transportation back-and-forth would be by shuttle bus. Other car and tent camping areas would be set up at the top of the hill in fields to the north of the current parking area to the arts center. Another area for vendors and food would be placed alongside the Arkell Pavilion in an existing parking lot. Portable bathrooms would be placed adjacent to the parking areas, according to the diagrams supplied by the festival's organizers.

The festival plans to tap into Vermont's growing presence in the solar industry — per capita use of solar power in Vermont is high relative to the rest of the country. The festival is also hoping to attract the interest of the Tesla Corp., whose cutting edge technology in solar storage has excited many of the renewable energy industry's advocates. The industry is at a tipping point, Bailey said.

"By moving to a more accessible, central community, we'll be able to reach more people who want to be a part of it," he said.


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