Turning Porches into Stages and Strangers into Friends
by Kelly Hunter
Photos courtesy of PorchFestBWK
A conversation between two friends almost five years ago has grown into a major event in Downtown Brunswick, bringing a community together to enjoy music, food and fun. We talked to Jason Umfress and Angie Young about what makes Brunswick’s PorchFest so special.
Jason told us, “The concept is simple, really. Start with a bunch of local performers, set them up on the porches of historic homes in Downtown Brunswick, invite all your friends and let the magic happen.” But where did this simple idea come from? The first PorchFest was held in Ithaca, New York in 2007, but the idea came to Brunswick via the Oakhurst community of Decatur, Georgia.
“In late 2017 or early 2018, my brother-in-law told me about the annual event in Oakhurst,” said Angie, “and it sounded perfect for SoGlo.” SoGlo stands for South of Gloucester and is a name the residents and businesses of Downtown Brunswick have adopted for the area.
Angie brought the idea to her friend, Susan Bates, who owns Tipsy McSway’s Bar and Grill and has an extensive event-planning background. The two friends talked about it and soon brought in more friends from around the neighborhood.
“It’s just a fun day,” said Jennifer George, SoGlo resident and founding member of PorchFestBWK. “The eclectic nature of the event is so fitting for our neighborhood. You can feel the energy in the air on the day of the event.”
The first Brunswick PorchFest was held on a rainy Sunday in November of 2018. Despite the weather, the event was a moderate success, with neighbors spontaneously getting tents and canopies out of sheds and garages to keep audiences dry while they listened to the performers. It was an apt demonstration of the enthusiasm of the community. “Old houses aren’t easy to live in. They require a lot of work,” said Angie, “People who live here do it because they love it.” That first year many of the attendees were residents of Downtown Brunswick, but the committee knew the opportunity was there for even bigger success. “We wanted to show off how cool Downtown Brunswick is,” said Angie.
Official planning for the November event begins in June, but most of the “Founding Folks” have the event in the backs of their minds all year. Angie said, “Even when we’re just hanging out, it still comes up.” The volunteers for the event were known as the “Roaming Gnomes” from the beginning, and the gnome became PorchFestBWK’s unofficial mascot. Jason joined his neighbors on the committee in 2019. “Jason keeps us on task, which is no easy feat,” Angie laughed.
When PorchFest Sunday rolled around in 2019, the weather was gorgeous and the organizers and volunteers were stunned by the turnout. “There were hundreds of people spilling into the neighborhood before the bands even started,” Angie said, “We looked at each other and said, ‘What have we done?’” There were some growing pains that year, but the volunteers and crowds took it in stride. Food trucks ran out of food but learned to bring more next time.
Unfortunately, next time had to wait a bit. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns were gripping the nation and the world when the committee made the difficult decision to cancel PorchFestBWK 2020. However, the events of 2020 helped inspire the theme for 2021. After the Mardi Gras parade was cancelled in February of 2020, the residents of New Orleans improvised by turning their houses into “floats” and celebrating “Yardi Gras.” That spirit of resilience and community spirit inspired the PorchFestBWK planners to have a Yardi Gras-themed event in 2021. Even residents who didn’t have performers on their porches participated by decorating their homes in a Mardi Gras theme. Awards were given out, and it made for an extra-festive backdrop to the event.
Organizers estimated four to five thousand people attended last year, along with 50 performers on as many porches. This year is expected to be even bigger, with 63 performers on 56 porches. Last year’s theme was so popular that the neighborhood started brainstorming the 2022 theme early. Volunteer Sara Giannakakis suggested a “Wizard of Oz” theme and eventually they decided to call PorchFestBWK 2022 “There’s No Place Like Gnome” to keep the spirit of the original Roaming Gnomes involved.
I think the event is so
successful because, at its core,
it is a celebration of community.
“I think the event is so successful because, at its core, it is a celebration of community,” Jason said, “Committee members donate their time to produce the event because we love where we live. Performers donate their talent to share their passion and bring joy to others. And our sponsors donate their treasure because they understand the impact a unique, community-building event can have in our city. PorchFestBWK simply wouldn’t work if the shared love and celebration of our community wasn’t at the heart of the event!”
PorchFestBWK 2022 will take place Sunday, November 13 from noon to 6 p.m., rain or shine. The free festival will close with a performance by local band Doink! on the Brunswick Manor Main Stage in Halifax Square. Five to six thousand people are expected to come from near and far to take in the special place that is Downtown Brunswick!
If you go:
—The trolley will be back this year running up and down Union Street.
—Bikes are a great way to get around to the different porches.
—Halifax Square is the center of the event, with up to 12 food trucks,
a merchandise and information tent and the Main Stage on
the porch of Brunswick Manor.
—Those with young children in tow are encouraged to bring strollers or wagons.
—The event is pet friendly, so bring your furry friend to “PoochFest.”
—Performers are coming from as far away as Nashville, TN,
South Carolina and Florida.
—Tipping the performers via Venmo, CashApp, or good old cash is encouraged.
—You can go to the website today to check out the
interactive map and plan your day.
—Printed maps will be available at the merchandise tent during the event
—Interested in volunteering? Visit the website to register.