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Organizers predict 'really great year' as Mayfest returns to Fort Worth

FORT WORTH -- For Mayfest organizers, 38 may just be the magic number.

On Thursday, Fort Worth's oldest family weekend festival will resume, one year after the swine flu scare prompted local officials to cancel the 37th Mayfest in Trinity Park, just three hours before the gates were to open.

The closure caused Mayfest to struggle, and organizers feared that the curtain was dropping on the popular event.

But Mayfest is back, buoyed by donations from vendors and suppliers as well as local foundations that wanted to secure Mayfest's immediate and long-term future.

With no unforeseen circumstances and good weather, Mayfest Executive Director Elizabeth Basham expects a "really great year." She says she hopes that Mayfest will pull in $500,000 this year.

"This is the one that could surpass all others, in terms of attendance and profit," Basham said. "If the weather holds up and all the attempts at keeping expenses down [succeed], this could be the big one."

Devastating cancellation

Last year, Tarrant County Public Health and the Fort Worth Parks and Community Services Department canceled most city-affiliated public events to prevent swine flu from spreading. Since Mayfest leases the park from the city, organizers had no choice but to close.

Basham said the organization usually went into the festival raising $150,000 to $200,000. Mayfest, which raises money from the festival, sponsors, vendors and public and private donors, attracts nearly 200,000 visitors a year.

To organizers and volunteers, the 2009 festival's cancellation wasn't only financially debilitating, it was also heartbreaking and reminiscent of 1995, when a storm blew in with fist-sized hail that injured 90 people.

But although the fest survived that storm, no one anticipated a situation like the swine flu scare.

Organizers feared they would lose about $500,000 because of the cancellation. Then, Mayfest had to dig into its $200,000 reserve fund to repay vendors and sponsors.

To make matters worse, a fundraising concert called Save Mayfest set the nonprofit back even further. On the day of the event, July 12, temperatures surpassed 100 degrees. Only 300 people stopped by.

With security, tents, chairs and other expenses, the organization lost an additional $5,000.

Foundations to the rescue

But some in the community would lose a little spring in their step without Mayfest.

Since its inception, Mayfest has donated about $6 million to its three founding partners -- the Junior League of Fort Worth, the Parks and Community Services Department and Streams and Valleys Inc. -- for community programs for awareness and improvement of city parks and the Trinity River.

So, by the end of last year, grants from area foundations helped secure Mayfest's future, Basham said.

The Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations each gave $50,000, and other grants brought the figure to $145,000 by year's end, a phenomenal amount in tough economic times, organizers said.

With the generosity of the community and foundations, Mayfest has raised a little over $300,000 going into this year's festival.

"That is completely unprecedented and speaks to the commitment of the community, area businesses and foundations," Basham said. "The goal is to make enough income from profit to build back the reserve and give back to the community."

Wood, water and fear

Basham said the organization has worked to make Mayfest affordable for families.

"Mayfest offers so much for people who are on a budget," she said.

New this year is the All-American Lumberjack Show, which is free and will allow participants to log-roll in a water tank and do woodcarvings, even with chain saws, Basham said. A wakeskating exhibition, in partnership with the Trinity River Vision Authority, will show professionals on a pulley system doing what looks like snowboarding on water, she said.

Festivalgoers also will have a chance to be scared.

For Sean O'Harra and Gary Roden, business partners who run The Terror on the Trinity, four years of negotiations and 31/2 weeks of work will come to fruition when the gates open -- and stay open -- Thursday.

O'Harra, of Arlington, and Roden, of Cleburne, build haunted houses in the area, including one for Six Flags Over Texas that they have done for seven years, O'Harra said.

"We had one ready to go, and we thought we'd give it a try at Mayfest," O'Harra said. "We were set up, and at the final hour, they shut us down."

Back this year, O'Harra described their event as a "PG- to PG-13-rated, high-impact scare," he said.

Not wanting to give anything away, O'Harra said it is a mood-setter, an old mansion with some ghouls and ghosts.

"It's got several special effects, and we did it to make it family-friendly."

Discounts

Organizers are also touting online ticket sales with lots of discount incentives, including a Military Day on Sunday, during which visitors with military identification can get in free and bring three other people, Basham said.

The four-day event, held on the banks of the Trinity River since 1973, is put on by more than 3,000 volunteers typically contributing about 12,000 hours of service.

Along with the hard work is lots of love, said Lisa O'Connor, who has been involved with Mayfest since she was in high school, some 30 years ago.

"It's in my blood, a part of my life, part of my year, and I look forward to it," she said.

ELIZABETH ZAVALA, 817-390-7418

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