New leadership, changes for 2013 Cherry Blossom Festival

CEO Jake Ferro plans to branch out to Middle Georgia in future

lfabian@macon.comMarch 4, 2013 

Yoshino cherry trees bloom when they’re ready, but their signature Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon doesn’t have that luxury.

The printed schedule for 2013 won’t be out until this week, but there’s no stopping the clock to play catch-up after major turnover in personnel over the past year disrupted planning.

In the final days of preparation for the festival that runs March 15-24, things may seem as tranquil as ducks gliding along the glassy surface of a quiet lake.

But new president and CEO Jake Ferro says that’s because you don’t see the thousands of legs paddling underwater.

“What I didn’t fully understand until I came on board was the hundreds of volunteers needed,” said Ferro, who pointed out that the Tunes and Balloons event alone will need about 100 people to anchor hot air balloons, direct traffic and keep things running.

Ferro was tapped last month to be the new festival leader. He took over as interim CEO in October when former President Richard Brewer left after just four months on the job. Brewer went back to Charleston, S.C., to be with his family. He succeeded Karen Lambert, who left after last year’s festival to become executive director of the Peyton Anderson Foundation.

The festival is also on its third director of sales and marketing since Stacy Campbell became head of the Perry Chamber of Commerce last year after the festival.

And just last week, DeeAnn Geeslin resigned from her position as the festival’s director of programming.

Despite the challenges, the staff is taking it in stride, said Lydia Moss, Ferro’s executive assistant, who also handles marketing and media for the festival.

“We all feel good about what’s ahead,” said Moss, who returned to work at the festival after being gone a few years.

Each year brings its share of changes as events come and go.

The International Food Fair will be replaced by the Food Truck Frenzy on March 23 and 24.

“It’s a big fad in Atlanta,” Ferro said.

Trucks serving a variety of dishes will be parked together on Third Street between Mulberry and Walnut streets.

“It’s gourmet foodies,” Moss said.

The Mulberry Street Arts & Crafts Festival also is back as a sanctioned event on the closing weekend. The festivals cut ties last year after a dispute over fees, but they have resolved their differences. The Middle Georgia Art Association event predates Cherry Blossom by a dozen years, Ferro said.

The popular street party is downsizing from dueling performance venues to a single stage at Cherry Street Plaza on March 23. Recording artists .38 Special will headline and be joined by the Dirty Guv’nahs, Atlanta Funk Society and the Wild Feathers.

“We’re trying to get a good demographic mix on stage,” Ferro said.

For the first time, the U.S. Air Force Academy band will be performing in a free concert March 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Porter Auditorium at Wesleyan College.

This year’s Cherry Blossom Fashion Show will pay tribute to the only Miss Georgia to win the Miss America crown, the late Neva Langley Fickling, who died of cancer last year.

Fickling’s late father-in-law, William A. Fickling Sr., propagated and shared his blooming cherry trees. He founded the festival along with Carolyn Crayton, who convinced the Macon businessman to help beautify the community by spreading the trees that now number about 300,000.

The bed race March 16 will include two divisions, Fast & Furious and Wild & Wacky, to compensate for slower times on more elaborately decorated beds that are normally left in the dust of the champion Macon-Bibb County firefighters.

“This way those not in fire department shape might be able to win something,” Moss said.

This year’s souvenir pin costs $10, which is twice as much as last year. But purchasers are eligible for prize drawings for $5,000 and $100 gasoline cards. Winners will be chosen in Central City Park at 5 p.m. the final day of the festival, not days later, as in the past.

“That was a big change with the pin this year, and we hope the public embraces that,” Moss said.

Pins, fine art prints and other souvenirs are already on sale at the Cherry Blossom Gift Shop that moved up to the Library Ballroom at 652 Mulberry St., across from the Grand Opera House. Pins will also be sold at Robins Federal Credit Union and Kroger stores.

Third Street Park festivities have a new treat. Free pink-iced Krispy Kreme donuts will complement Kroger’s cherry ice cream, which is expected to be served in cups, not cones.

The grocery store came on board as a new Third Street sponsor this year.

“Jake’s done a wonderful job of fundraising this year,” Moss said.

Sponsorships are key to keeping most of the events free to the public, Ferro said.

He is anxious to see the culmination of a lot of hard work that began before he was on board.

Ferro is also looking forward to hosting visiting dignitaries from other festivals and nations around the world.

A delegation from Mâcon, France, is coming to celebrate 40 years of being sister cities.

Although the festival is less than two weeks away, people are still calling Ferro with suggestions for this year.

“Ideas are great, but we’re in execution mode,” he said.

His goal is to make things better each year in the future.

“Jake already has a file going for 2014,” Moss said.

Ferro is looking forward to having a full year to plan for next year and sees future Cherry Blossom Festivals branching out to include more of Middle Georgia.

“I don’t want to change the name at this point, but we are heading in that direction philosophically,” Ferro said. “It’s growing to the point we can’t just think Macon, but the outlying areas as well.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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