The Old Port Festival – one of Maine’s best-known and longest-running summer celebrations – has outlived its usefulness.

There will be one more festival, June 9, before its 46-year run ends, organizer Portland Downtown announced Tuesday.

The Old Port today is one of Maine’s hippest and most desirable dining and shopping destinations. So a giant outdoor party that features food, music and a parade of giant-headed puppets is no longer needed to draw folks into the area, organizers said.

“We have to look at our mission and programs and re-evaluate from time to time, and the festival is an event that’s achieved its mission,” said Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown, the nonprofit downtown improvement group that has run the festival for 20 years. “It started at a time when the area was in need of economic development.”

The group runs a dozen or so other public events during the year, including the annual holiday tree lighting in Monument Square, various Christmastime events and Downtown Worker Appreciation Day, Gilbert said. So the board decided it should focus time and energy on those and other events rather than the festival.

“It’s a disappointment for me personally; I like things that go on for a long time,” said Steve DiMillo, whose family owns DiMillo’s On the Water, the floating restaurant on Long Wharf. “But professionally, it wasn’t a great day for us, with all the hassles and traffic and parking problems. I can understand why it’s ending.”

Gilbert said cost was not a factor in canceling the festival. Because of in-kind donations of labor and material from the city, the event usually broke even or made a little bit of money, she said. The group is funded by property owners in the business district, Gilbert said.

SUMMER KICKOFF WEEKEND

The Old Port Festival, which drew more than 30,000 people some years, had evolved over time. It had drawn complaints at times for excessive drinking and rowdy behavior. In recent years, Portland Downtown had made several changes to produce a more family-friendly festival.

In 2014, the group created an expanded Old Port Festival Weekend – three days of events, with the Old Port Festival just one of them. A Ferris wheel was set up in the DiMillo’s parking lot to draw people to the area.

Organizers have scaled back on the other carnival-type rides, on the number of stages for live music and on out-of-town food and product vendors. Last year, there were some 230 vendors, including about 42 Old Port businesses with tables set up on the sidewalk. There were just three stages of live music, besides a children’s stage, when some years there had been six or more.

The weekend of Old Port Festival has been renamed Summer Kickoff Weekend. One event that’s now part of the weekend is the Square Hop on Friday, with four shows by local performers, like the Maine Marimba Ensemble or Casco Bay Movers dance troupe, in downtown squares. Saturday is designated Shop for a Cause Day; it’s also when the Walk the Working Waterfront Tour takes place.

Gilbert said those events will remain, under the name Summer Kickoff Weekend. She didn’t think any of the elements of Old Port Festival – including music or the legendary puppet-led parade by Shoestring Theater – would be salvaged and moved to other days.

Shoestring Theater has organized a parade since the 1970s. The giant-headed puppet heads bobbing above the parade are oft-photographed and have served as the public symbol of the festival for years. Nance Parker, directer of Shoestring, couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment on the festival’s demise.

EVENT BECAME BELOVED BY MANY

Times have certainly changed for the Old Port since 1973, when artists and creative types were opening businesses and hoping to turn the worn waterfront district into a commercial jewel. There weren’t dozens of mega-sized cruise ships coming to town then, and few if any restaurants getting rave reviews in national magazines.

So an event to attract people and introduce them to Old Port merchants was deemed necessary. The original festival was two days and quickly devolved into a “two-day drunk,” said DiMillo, whose family restaurant was on the inland side of Commercial Street when the festival started.

But the festival crowd mellowed over the years, and the event became beloved by many, including local business owners.

Chris Cummings, regional manager for the Mexicali Blues clothing and jewelry stores on Moulton Street, said she thought the festival had continued to be “a great opportunity for people to enjoy Portland” and discover local businesses. She said she hoped that some other group might find a way to continue the festival, in some form.

“It’s been very successful for us; we get to meet people who don’t know about us yet,” Cummings said.

It remains unclear, however, whether someone will take over the Old Port Festival or some incarnation of it. There are other groups doing festival-type events around Portland, including Creative Portland, the nonprofit arts agency that organizes the city’s monthly First Friday Art Walks.

Those events, in good weather, can feel like festivals, with musicians, food vendors and artists and craftspeople displaying their wares up and down Congress Street.

But Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland, said her group has no interest in trying to replicate the Old Port Festival. The art walks, she said, shine a light on artists but are more organic than a rigidly organized, one-day festival, with stages set up for music, and hundreds of food and craft vendors.

“We will continue to market our artists and cultural life here, but not in an Old Port Festival setting,” said Minot.

David Harry of The Forecaster contributed to this story.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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