Kansas City Irish Fest 2017 kicks off its traditional Labor Day weekend Friday, and its growing success mirrors the rebound of downtown since the event relocated to Crown Center in 2004 after a soaking debut on the riverfront.
“In 2002, downtown was a bit of a ghost town during the week, and a virtual one on weekends,” said Pat O’Neill, co-founder of Irish Fest. “Kansas City’s hotel occupancy was near single digits and few people living in and around downtown had a permanent address.
“In 2003, we took a leap of faith, based on the success of the two neighborhood Irish Fests in Brookside and Westport, and staged the first citywide Irish Fest at Berkley Park on the riverfront.
“It was a smashing success, until some eight inches of rain fell on us on a Saturday and washed away all our seed money and left us in a pool of debt.”
The next year, Crown Center invited the Fest to move uptown, and there’s been no looking back.
“The fest at Crown Center was an instant hit,” O’Neill said, “and we just grew and grew along with downtown.”
Irish Fest has grown to become one of the nation’s largest Irish festivals with an annual attendance of 85,000- to 90,000 people. Last year, visitors came from 32 states, multiple countries and booked over 2,500 hotel rooms in the city.
“In this, our 15th year, we are looking at Irish fest fans accounting for nearly 3,000 room nights at Crown Center and surrounding hotels, and each year pumping many millions of dollars into the local economy,” O’Neill said.
About 300 musicians, dancers, story tellers and other performers are expected and a full line-up can be found here.
Tickets cost $10 in advance Friday, and $12 in advance Saturday and Sunday, or $30 for a weekend rate, and are available at www.irishfest.com. Tickets are $18 at the gate Saturday and Sunday.
This year’s opening coincides with First Friday, another event that’s grown with downtown, and for the first time, bumps up against the American Royal barbecue which traditionally was held in October. The Royal event has decamped from downtown for the Kansas Speedway.
O’Neill said Irish Fest organizers know they need to keep their event fresh.
“The challenges for us now is that there is so much more competition for music and culture lovers’ time, money and attention, First Fridays and festivals and concerts of all description.
“They’ve made our Irish Fest work better, harder and more creatively.”