PLAINFIELD – Herald-News reporter Mike Mallory spoke with Plainfield Riverfront Foundation Executive Director Robert Epley about the foundation and the future of Plainfield Fest.
Mallory: You’re very active in the community and serve on various boards. Where does the passion come from?
Epley: It’s a drive to give back to the community and make a difference. It’s a passion to make the community a better place for all to live. I was brought up by parents that always stated it was good to give back.
Mallory: When did Plainfield Fest start, and what was the inspiration for it?
Epley: In the early 1970s, as a community event for the village. Plainfield Riverfront Foundation took it over six years ago and it’s our foundation’s largest fundraiser. The funds go back to revitalizing the riverfront. We’re at a point now where 15,000 to 20,000 will attend this year. It’s for surrounding communities as well that come to Plainfield. We’re trying to create a destination here, to get people to return.
Mallory: What was the deciding factor in moving Plainfield Fest this year to the riverfront? Was there a moment where you and the board knew it was time?
Epley: It’s been two or three years in the making. In working closely with the village, the mayor and the police and fire chiefs, there’s an understanding with these capacity crowds we’re bringing in downtown that it’s at true capacity. There were 15,000 brought in last year.
It highlights our downtown but also has its constraints there. The thought in changing it was to continue to create awareness and create a destination at the riverfront property. It’s 44 acres of open land to be used for a festival. There’s an ability to manage it better and safer. The downtown density was an issue. At the riverfront, we can now bring in larger acts and larger entertainment for the families, in terms of vendors and crafters and carnival rides.
Mallory: Reaction to the change has been mostly positive so far. What else do you think makes this the better spot aside from space?
Epley: The thought going into it was to highlight the riverfront, as I call it: ‘the hidden gem.’ A lot of people outside the community, maybe even in the community, don’t know it exists. We’re doing improvements on the property to support festivals.
We’re looking at a wine and jazz event in the fall. We’re looking at using it for various organizations that want to come down to Plainfield. The C.W. Avery YMCA, potentially, could have a fishing program there. So having the fest there is a driver to create awareness for the riverfront.
Mallory: Have you heard anyone against the change after all these years downtown?
Epley: We’ve had some pushback. It’s from those who are comfortable with where it’s been. I think they’ll be pleased with the change. A lot of it goes back to safety issues.
It’s an economic driver bringing that many people into the downtown, so we understand the concerns from businesses. But we’re only a couple blocks away and we’ll continue to market the downtown and encourage people to visit it. It’s the oldest downtown in Will County. There’s a lot of opportunities here in town, but we ran out of space. We’ll do our best to drive crowds there.
Mallory: What enhancements have been made to the riverfront from the fundraising at Plainfield Fest and what is planned for the future?
Epley: We took over the old wastewater treatment facility, gutted it and turned that into our offices. We have an education center on the second floor that highlights the property. We want to create awareness for the history of it.
We also have a conference room there the community can use. We have public restrooms and a concession stand. We are fundraising for our K9 Memorial Project. Three of the six past Plainfield Police Department K-9s are buried there. We have an anticipated August unveiling for that.
We’re working on a lighting project to fund 18 pathway lights on the DuPage River and take the financial burden off the village. We’re looking at infrastructure improvements to support future events, such as enhanced electricity. There’s a pad on the north end that was a former auditorium, the lone remaining item from the early 1900s.
We hope to do something there, maybe a water feature with plaques with stats and history. The land is in the flood plain, so we can’t get a permanent structure down there, but we can create a destination for recreation right by the downtown.
Mallory: What can people expect at Plainfield Fest 2017?
Epley: We’ve improved musical acts. Friday, July 14, we’ll have something similar to the Taste of Joliet, with a country night. We’ll have Stephen Neal, who is from the area, Gruband and Keith Sempel, a former contestant on The Voice. Saturday, July 15, we’ll bring in larger acts, such as The Boy Band Night and Hi Infidelity. We expect to bring in bigger crowds.