Gabbing with the blackberry boss

To say Carol Atkinson is a busy lady this time of year is an understatement.

Carol Atkinson talks Main Stream Association, Blackberry Festival.

To say Carol Atkinson is a busy lady this time of year is an understatement.

As executive director of the Bremerton Main Stream Association, blackberries are her life right now as she and the rest of her planning posse put the finishing touches on this weekend’s 20th annual Blackberry Festival.

Atkinson has been with the Main Stream Association since 1986 and became executive director in the early ’90s.

The Blackberry Festival is the organization’s largest event and she loves seeing everyone have a good time along the Bremerton boardwalk, making all the stressful months leading up to it well worth it.

The Bremerton Patriot recently sat down with Atkinson at the Bremerton Main Stream Association’s Fourth Street office to chat about the organization, Blackberry Festival and what it takes to put on the huge event.

Question: What does the Bremerton Main Stream Association do?

Answer: It started out as a retail association until most of the retail left town, then it switched to a promotional business to promote business downtown, to bring people downtown, to support these businesses that come downtown.

Q: What events does the Bremerton Main Stream Association put on?

A: The Blackberry Festival, St. Patrick’s Day parade, Concerts on the Boardwalk, Kitsap Harbor Festival and Santa’s arrival in downtown Bremerton.

Q: How did the Main Stream Association get started?

A: I think it was around 1983. It was a national association at the time and used to be called the Main Street Association. It was the name of the national organization and they required a lot of things and time and you were required to pay dues and go on trips and we felt the money was going out of town. We decided to change the name and keep those dollars in the immediate area. It’s probably been 10 years since we changed the name.

Q: How many businesses are involved with the organization?

A: About 80 businesses. We also have some individual people that are members.

Q: What are your duties as executive director?

A: I’m kind of responsible for everything. I would say it was the early ’90s, probably ’91 or ’92, when I became director. Maybe a little later, I don’t know.

Q: How did the Blackberry Festival get its start?

A: When Louis Mentor was mayor, his wife came over and said, ‘Let’s start a festival.’ I looked at her like (laughs), ‘OK.’ She said, ‘Let’s call it the Blackberry Festival.’ She was from California and didn’t have the invasive blackberries like we do here. Everybody said, You can’t have it on Labor Day weekend, nobody’ll come.’

We had the first one on Fourth Street because we didn’t have the boardwalk yet and there were about 30 vendors. The food vendors sold out of food by noon and we had probably 2,000 people show up. The next year’s festival was on Fourth Street too because the boardwalk wasn’t quite ready yet and the third year we finally moved it to the boardwalk.

Q: How has the festival changed over time?

A: Well, obviously it’s grown considerably. We have limited space on the boardwalk and we sell out of spaces for vendors by June. We don’t have duplicates, we have all different vendors and sponsors. So there’s only one type of each vendor and we try to make sure we have all different food booths. Therefore, the vendors do well because there’s no competition to deal with.

Q: What is the public’s favorite food served at the festival?

A: The No. 1 favorite for this festival is the blackberry pie. People come on Saturdays to get the blackberry pie and wine. Probably the festival favorites are funnel cakes and the things you can’t get any other time of year.

Q: How long does it take to prepare for the Blackberry Festival?

A: It takes a year. The festival is done, obviously, right after Labor Day and then it’s cleanup time. In October, we have a social to thank the sponsors and volunteers and then December it’s time for Santa. In January, we get started right away on this festival.

Q: How many people are involved in the preparation process?

A: Our main core committee is five people and we meet every single Tuesday. Then we have a larger committee that includes city people, parking people, police and we meet about once a month. We reward them with blackberry pie at the last meeting.

I appreciate the help we get from the city and Port of Bremerton. We couldn’t do this without a great deal of support from all of the entities and a lot of people.

Q: Is the Main Stream Association doing anything special to celebrate the festival’s 20th anniversary?

A: We have little blackberry tattoos that we’re giving out to the children. We also have cakes that we’re going to have every day at noon until they’re gone. Costco did a really nice design on that. And we have 20 doves we’re going to release at the opening ceremony Saturday at noon. We also have special entertainment this year — The Beatniks on Saturday and Sunday and the Joey James Dean Band on Monday.

Q: How many people turn out for the Blackberry Festival each year?

A: There’s no way of counting, but the police department has estimated about 50,000 people. It’s elbow-to-elbow along the boardwalk for three days. It’s a huge crowd.

Q: Looking back, what do you think now about those people who said no one would come to the event Labor Day weekend?

A: I guess that just goes to show you if you stick to something and continue to improve it, people will come.