Middlebury to host WinterFest extravaganza this Saturday

MIDDLEBURY — The volcanic allure of Chili Fest this year will surrender to the frigid beauty of snow sculptures and other fun features of the town’s first annual “WinterFest” celebration, planned for noon to 6 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Middlebury Recreation Park.
Middlebury’s inaugural WinterFest will — at least to start — be a much smaller version of the multi-day event of the same name that has enthralled Rutland-area folks for many years. The festival will feature a variety of family friendly, winter-themed activities, entertainment and food, all designed to get people outdoors to become reacquainted with their neighbors and the diverse range of businesses that will help serve up the fun.
The event was born out of a desire to at least temporarily replace the very popular Chili Fest, which organizers decided to temporarily suspend this March in view of a shrinking downtown footprint (brought on by the downtown rail bridges project) and burnout experienced by some of the regular festival entrants.
“One of the things we are losing with the Chili Fest is the opportunity for people to get outside, see their friends and neighbors,” said Karen Duguay, marketing director of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), which is spearheading WinterFest. “There’s always this strong, community feeling at the Chili Fest. We were thinking of ways we could replicate that and give people a reason to get out of their houses. (WinterFest) seemed like a natural fit for this year.”
Partnership officials stressed Chili Fest is merely in hibernation and could soon reclaim its spot in the organization’s events lineup. That lineup already includes such annual fixtures as the Spooktacular and A Very Merry Middlebury.  
Fortunately, BMP officials got a nice assist from Rutland WinterFest organizers in planning Middlebury’s inaugural winter extravaganza. Among those Rutland helpers has been Russ Marsan.
Rutland’s WinterFest is in its 16th year. This year’s version began on Feb. 16 and will end, coincidentally, on Feb. 24 — the date of Middlebury’s WinterFest. Activities at the Rutland festival include an art walk, night sledding on Centre Street, a variety show, snow sculptures and a dance. Many Rutland merchants and nonprofits are involved.
Marsan has been able to offer insights to the BMP on how to coordinate and grow the event.
“The best way to start (in Middlebury) is with one day,” Marsan said. “We’ll see if it connects with folks and perhaps convert to a multiple-day event going forward.”
Marsan has been impressed with the extent to which businesses and nonprofits have been rallying around the new venture in Middlebury. Sponsors and supporters of WinterFest include Community Barn Ventures, Addison Independent, Fire & Ice, Carpenter & Costin, Awesome Graphics, Middlebury Parks & Recreation, Middlebury Fence, IPJ Real Estate, Middlebury College, Sotheby’s International Realty, Shaw’s, Champlain Valley Properties, Appalachian Gap, Cedar Ledge Fence, Silver Maple Construction, Wells Physical Therapy, Vermont Gas Systems  and Middlebury UndergrounD.
“It’s been pretty successful, for the first go-around,” Marsan said.
“A number of local businesses have stepped up with sponsorship dollars or in-kind donations and we’ve gotten a lot of interest from organizations wanting to participate either this year or in the future,” Duguay added.
Middlebury’s WinterFest will see a number of local organizations volunteering to run activities throughout the day, including:
•  A s’mores station run by Sun Common.
•  An obstacle course run by volunteers from WomenSafe and members of the Middlebury Union Middle School winter running team.
•  A snow painting activity hosted by the organization “Let’s Grow Kids.”
•  Nature treks into the nearby woods, led by Middlebury Area Land Trust officials.
•  An arts & crafts station in the Addison Central Teens Center run by Ilsley.
•  A “fat bike” demo run by folks from Frog Hollow Bikes.
•  A free skating session at the nearby Memorial Sports Center, from 2 to 4 p.m.
Additional activities throughout the day will include two a capella performances from the D-8 and Mamajamas, African drumming, a snow sculpture contest, horse and wagon rides, face painting, a photo booth, giant lawn games, a mini sledding hill, big trucks to explore and digging for ice gems.
The BMP is making sure WinterFest won’t break anyone’s household bank. The entry fee is $5 per person, with kids age 5 and younger admitted free. All activities are included in the price. Coriander Restaurant will be selling small cups of chili and there will be pizza by the slice and hot dogs— all for $1 each. Sweet and savory buns and breads will also be available to sample and purchase and the hot cocoa hut will be on hand giving away free cocoa and cookies.
“We wanted to keep it affordable,” Duguay said of the event, the profits from which help the BMP sponsor activities and amenities that will improve and promote downtown Middlebury.
Chris Hammond, a member of the BMP board, is excited about WinterFest and its potential growth in the future.
“Businesses are exhibiting some good energy” in support of the event, Hammond said. “It’s a matter now of who shows up.”
Temperatures in Middlebury were in the low 60s as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday. But fear not, WinterFest organizers are working with a landscape company to truck in snow to ensure the Mother Nature doesn’t melt away the snow sculpture contest and other activities dependent on the white stuff.
“Either way, we’re going to make the most of it,” Duguay said. “We’ll have food, we’ll have activities and it’s a way to get families out of the house … just bring your mud boots; it’s Vermont. We can have fun in any weather.”
The fun won’t end when the outdoor activities end at 6 p.m. Adults are invited to join a winter-themed “pub crawl.”
As part of the pub crawl special cocktails and appetizer specials will be offered at a wide variety of local bars and restaurants, including:
•  The Middlebury Inn, featuring an outdoor fire pit with a Drop-In Brewery special: Heart of Lothian Venison Stew with Red Dwarf Pint for $14.
•  American Flatbread: Apple Bacon Cheddar by the slice for $4, and Cheese and Potato pirogue for $3, with a “Spicy Paloma” drink special for $7.
•  Two Brothers: A Poinsettia Cocktail special and $1 oysters.
•  Rough Cut: $5 well drinks and $5 bowls of brisket chili.
•  Marquis Theater: Otter Creek Daily Dose beer for $3, Tequila tonics for $5 and a la carte smoked chicken tacos for $5.
•  The Lobby: Free Silver’s Dirty Fries and Spicy Vodka Collins as drink.  Closing by 9/9:30 p.m.
For more information about this year’s WinterFest, check out ExperienceMiddlebury.com/winterfest.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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