By Angelo Lynn
BRANDON — The town of Brandon is one of a dozen communities throughout central and southern Vermont that is in the running as the permanent home of SolarFest, the renewable energy festival that has drawn thousands of people annually for the past 25 years. The festival is known for its high-energy musical acts on the main stage, arts, education and hands-on workshops for a sustainable lifestyle.
“We’re looking ahead to establish a home and are fortunate to have an experienced and dedicated group of volunteers working to find the right place to put down roots,” said SolarFest President Bill Laberge. “We’re hoping to return to our in-person festival in July of 2022, hopefully in our new home, wherever that may be.”
The leaders in Brandon answered the call with Select Board member Tim Guiles, Economic Development Manager Bill Moore and Jim Emerson of the Energy Committee arranging visits, property tours and ongoing discussions about potential partnerships and the many opportunities the town offers. One of the sites that drew interest from both sides was in Park Village, with state owned land and ample space to spread out, as well as being easily accessible and visible. The team at SolarFest said they were “scheduled to look at several attractive properties in Brandon in the coming weeks and are interested in visiting as many options as possible.”
SolarFest began in Middletown Springs in 1995 with the innovative idea of holding hold a festival that showcased the power and possibilities of solar energy. It has since grown into a community by promoting artistic excellence while sharing information on a wide range of sustainability topics, including renewable energy, green buildings, clean transportation, and regenerative agriculture.
The annual music festival has featured live music, informative workshops, excellent food, and the renowned Theater-in-the-Woods, with original works by noted children’s author Frank Asch.
Bill McKibben, Middlebury Scholar in Residence and co-founder of 350.org, has said, “If there is any place that can lay claim to having started this revolution 20 years ago, it was Vermont and SolarFest.”
Despite being forced into virtual, online festivals in 2020 and 2021, SolarFest began this year with major donations for acquiring a permanent home. The search began with a “SolarFest Space Force” to identify appropriate sites and explore many options like partnerships, co-locations, and other options.
Since its humble beginning, SolarFest has connected people, the arts, ideas and technology, fostering partnerships to create a vibrant present and a sustainable future. It’s grown from a few hundred visitors to a peak of 7,000 guests over its three-day festival, but has hovered closer to 3,000 guests in most years. The festival includes special children’s activities in a fun, safe, family-friendly environment with a marketplace of great food, craft, energy and sustainable living vendors.
Plus, as communications vice-president Mike Bailey said, there are “plenty of opportunities for serendipitous encounters, conversation, dancing, hiking, camping, relaxation, and an overall celebration of our planet’s beauty and bounty.”
So what is SolarFest looking for in a host community? And what characteristics does Brandon offer that has peeked the Fest’s interest? Bailey explains:
Q&A with Mike Bailey
When has SolarFest held its event in the past and when would the event likely be held in 2022?
Mike Bailey (MB): SolarFest has been held annually in July and we’re hoping to return to an in-person festival on July 15-17, 2022.
How big is your staff, and what type of facility are you looking to occupy? How could this be an economic boon for the town?
MB: We are currently being run entirely by volunteers, including our festival crew for ticketing, parking, security, presenters, and zero-waste cleanup. Our perfect site would be between 20-30 acres with plenty of room for hosting a weekend festival of 3,000-plus, including parking cars, having a solar-powered stage, and multiple indoor and outdoor workshops.
As SolarFest establishes a permanent home, we will need to have a full-time staff or partnerships to manage the property and expand into ongoing activities for technology showcases, demonstration projects and workforce training in addition to continuing our film and arts performances and singer-songwriter showcases.
We know you’re a long way from choosing one of the 12 sites who have expressed an interest in being the permanent home for SolarFest, but could you suggest what traits/characteristics make Brandon a strong potential candidate?
MB: Brandon is a beautiful town. It has an established music and arts community, from bluegrass to barn opera, that provides a natural synergy for SolarFest. Also, the Town has a demonstrated commitment to addressing climate change and renewable energy. Plus, Brandon is easily accessible for SolarFest attendees.
It’s been reported that Park Village in Brandon would make a good location. Is having a location that is highly visible to daily traffic (on Route 7) a desirable attribute?
MB: Park Village is adjacent to a large state-owned property that is currently undeveloped. We are exploring the possibility of a long-term lease for the grounds of our annual festival, along with a year-round headquarters in one of the nearby buildings. SolarFest has been built with partnerships and collaborations, and we look to continue working with other non-profit organizations, arts groups, community solar developers, and farmers.
What’s your approximate timeline for making a decision and moving into your permanent quarters, and why have you limited your search to southwest Vermont?
MB: SolarFest has always been a part of southwest Vermont, and we would love to launch our new home in 2022.
Is it to be assumed that you would continue to do virtual events in the future, as well as in-person?
MB: Yes, we’ve discovered that there are many advantages to doing virtual and hybrid events and plan to continue those, in addition to returning to our in-person events as things return to normal.
For more information visit: SolarFest.org.