Bluewater Borderfest keen to build on second year success

Matt Mays and his band performed at the second Bluewater Borderfest, which drew 7,500 fans to Centennial Park. Darren Metcalfe, Metcalfe Photography

Cathy Dobson

Mark Perrin is happy.  Really tired but really happy.

Just days after he and a legion of volunteers and organizers staged Bluewater Borderfest he knew the second-year event had surpassed expectations.

Perrin is starting to think his dream of holding a summer music mega-festival in Sarnia is within reach.

“Our goal for the whole weekend was 6,000 people and I’m so happy to exceed that with 7,497,” he said.

“Financially, it looks like we can pay off half of last year’s debt and keep investing in the event.”

If crowd support remains strong at next year’s Borderfest the first-year debt could be paid off, moving the festival in the black.

“That’s where we said we want to be in year three and I think we’re on our way,” said Perrin. “In fact, I’d say we’re a little ahead of schedule.

“I am thrilled to be sitting where we are.”

Perrin, Tyler Matthews and Nick Haynes are the local brains behind Bluewater Borderfest.

It seemed bold to launch a new festival in Centennial Park after Bayfest folded in 2013. Bayfest started humbly, like Borderfest, and grew to attract as many as 100,000 fans to hear world class country and rock headliners including Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, The Tragically Hip, Toby Keith, KISS and more.

Five years after Bayfest announced a “hiatus,” Perrin introduced Borderfest and set up a stage, beer tent, vendors and VIP area that resembled early Bayfest in many ways.

This year, the festival’s costs hit the $250,000 mark, offset by a $53,000 Celebrate Ontario grant and about $25,000 in sponsorships. That kind of support made it possible for Perrin et al to step up their game, bringing in the Arkells – one of the hottest Canadian acts going- as well as a robust country and classic rock night.

The Rock night featuring the Matt Mays Band, Dear Rouge and the Arkells had the strongest ticket sales with 3,649 sold.

Friday night’s classic rock with The Guess Who and Honeymoon Suite sold about 2,600, and Thursday’s country acts – Drake White, Corey James Mitchell Band and Drew Jacobs – drew 1,250 fans.

VIP tickets were a $20 upgrade and sold out the Friday and Saturday night.

Perrin says he’s interested in expanding the VIP area, which was located immediately in front of the stage and had capacity for 600.

“Those people really got their money’s worth, especially when Max (Kerman of the Arkells) jumped into the VIP section and starting giving hugs and shaking hands.

“It was very interactive,” said Perrin. “He even brought a fan up on the stage.”

But Borderfest has yet to land a major sponsor, and Perrin said that’s a priority.

“I think we’re still scratching the surface with sponsorship,” he said. “I feel now we’re a more established, more sustainable festival and that’s going to help us build.”

Perrin, who hasn’t given up his day job in marketing, makes it clear he’s not out to get rich with Borderfest.

“No one has gotten paid yet,” he said.

But about 12 charities that provided volunteer help this year are receiving donations.

He expects to make a Borderfest announcement this fall when next summer’s dates are released.

Perrin is also talking with the folks bringing a Tall Ships Festival to town next August and thinks a partnership might benefit both.

That would mean moving Bluewater Borderfest from July to August, but Perrin thinks it could work.

“After all,” he said, “July is a busy month for events and August is more open.”

No matter what, Perrin will soon begin making plans for the third annual Borderfest in 2019. Just as soon as he catches up on some sleep.

The Arts Journal reflects Sarnia’s growing cultural scene. Send your ideas to cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.