On the River, the annual summer beach bash that South Bend has come to know and love, will celebrate its final year in 2015.
That’s right, this is the last year of OTR. It’s difficult to even wrap my head around the words I just wrote. To date, more than 20,000 people have enjoyed an authentic beach environment in downtown South Bend, over 1,000 people have volunteered for the event, and OTR has raised nearly a half million dollars to support the Center for the Homeless. All of this has been made entirely possible by volunteers and community support; and it’s strong as ever. So, why end the event?
From the beginning, OTR has always been a site specific event – heck the event name and logo say it all! The site where we have held OTR over the past eight years is finally being developed. This is truly one of the best vacant plots of land in South Bend and we’re excited to see it used more than just one weekend per year. While we’ve tried, it simply seems there isn’t a suitable location anywhere else along the river that can accommodate the logistics of our event. We could attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole, but in the true spirit of OTR, we’d rather go out on top than host an inferior event that may fade away.
More than announcing the end of On the River, I wanted to use this occasion to reflect on what the event has meant to me personally as well as the dozens of volunteer committee members who have helped plan, promote and execute the event since its inception.
To fully understand OTR, is to understand where it came from. The idea was born from a couple South Bend natives in their mid-twenties experiencing a little winter blues. While off to a slow start, their vision of a grand, beach-themed summer festival gained support throughout town. Soon it was decided that the event would be a fundraiser for the Center for the Homeless, the Young Professionals Against Poverty jumped on board, volunteers and sponsors multiplied, and the event quickly became one of the most dynamic and anticipated summer events.
With that said, this all didn’t happen without significant effort. Every element of this event has been volunteer-driven and made possible by generous supporters. To give you an idea, each year the volunteer committee of young professionals has done things like import sand, build websites, produce promotions, create beach-themed children activities, work with various vendors, book entertainment, recruit volunteer event staff, build infrastructure and hundreds of other logistical efforts.
One of the things that makes the event unique are the authentic beach elements that we’ve designed and constructed through the years. Various warehouses throughout town, including a full semi-truck, now store an impressive number of custom-made, life-size props including dozens of tiki huts, surf boards, life guard chairs and over a mile of thatch. My favorite part about the OTR team is that the group isn’t a bunch of “idea people.” Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come up with some pretty cool ideas throughout the years. It’s just that the idea people are the same people who labor to make them a reality. Each year, not only do we transform a vacant lot into a remarkably authentic beach environment, we also raise money to support the Center for the Homeless which aims to transform the lives of their guests. As such, we like to say that our mission is “Transforming the Landscape of our Community.”
Even further, I’d like to think we’ve played a small role in writing the story of this city’s greater transformation. On the River came on board in 2008 — at a time when this community needed a little “can-do” spirit. This region was among the hardest hit in a national economic recession. There weren’t many media stories published about job creation, grand openings or new events. Memories of the recently cancelled Ethnic Festival and Firefly Festival were still fresh. The city-wide crime index was higher than it had been in nearly a decade, while both the College Football Hall of Fame and The South Bend Silver Hawks were consistently rumored to be leaving town. Even the Fighting Irish faithful were hanging their heads low after a 3-9 season, the worst football season in school history.
In a way, creating On the River was our small way of helping this town pick its head up a bit. Illustrating that transformation can happen here, a group of 20-somethings decided to pull together – on our own, without anyone’s direction or permission – to inspire an attitude that this town is good enough. None of us had an official title, role or responsibility to do this (although four years later I did begin working for DTSB). Fueled by our passion for the community and our desire to make a difference, we worked as volunteers for several months to create one magical weekend for the community. When it was done, even we were amazed by what we created. If only for one weekend, and if only on one vacant lot, we genuinely transformed our community.
Eight years later, we recognize South Bend as more vibrant, active and hopeful than we’ve seen it in decades. We now get to enjoy Urban Adventure, DTSB Restaurant Weeks, The Color Run, Slide the City, Sounds by South Bend, Ignite Michiana, Seitz & Sounds, and the South Bend Cubs. We saw The State Theater turn its marquee on again, new housing developments are sprouting up, and people now proudly display “I ♥ SB” signs and buttons. We now have the Kroc Center, Eddy Street Commons, EnFocus Fellows, dozens of new restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and South Bend River Lights. We were selected as a Code for America City, named and All American City, gained international recognition for innovation and technology, and claim one of the most impressive (and young) mayors in the country. Obviously OTR can’t take the credit any of these things. But, I’d like to think that OTR may have a small place in history as a part of this transformation. In some way, the current state of our community also helps me feel comfortable accepting this as OTR’s last year. Nonetheless, I am going to miss the event.
The “On the River Family” has been a tightknit group through the years. While there are newcomers who join in and catch the fever each year, many members have volunteered with OTR for 5 or more years. From the way we work and play together to the way we challenge and inspire one another, I can honestly say that I’ve never been part of a more genuine team. At a recent committee meeting each of us in the room took a turn sharing two things: “What you would miss least about On the River” and “What you would miss most about On the River.” Some of the least missed things were no surprise, including blisters, sun burns, sore feet, stress, grains of sand everywhere, and various follies. On the other hand, the list of things we’ll miss most revolved around themes like comradery and fellowship, sense of major accomplishment, overcoming obstacles to achieve a common goal, supporting the community, and the general consensus that our team annually creates something incredible out of seemingly nothing. The chance to reflect on these things was healthy for the group…and a little sad to be honest. It is telling, however, that nobody mentioned missing anything like the the great entertainment, or the good drinks, or the general beach festival environment. The encouragement for me here is that each of us can continue take the things we’ll miss about OTR and apply them to our everyday lives – other organizations, our families, relationships and careers.
The only thing left is to say thank you. Thanks to some of my best friends who have shared the OTR vision and have been working on this event from the start. Thank you to everyone who has served on the OTR Committee for the bonds we have formed, the memories we have created and the things we have accomplished. Thank you to the OTR Teen Committee for helping spread the OTR spirit to a new generation. Thank you to the Center for the Homeless for supporting the event and allowing us to serve your guests in this fashion. Thank you to all the generous businesses and individuals who have sponsored On the River through financial and in-kind contributions. Thank you to the hundreds of volunteers, public safety officials, streets department, vendors and other partners who have worked hard each year to create a safe and logistically sound event. Finally, thank you to everyone who has attended On the River and in-turn, supported our mission: “Transforming the Landscape of our Community.”
Here’s to one last year…let’s make it a great one!