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First THAW Festival Misses The Mark

There were months of hype and ambitions of rivaling State Patty’s Day in the borough for the THAW Festival. Organized by student groups, the Penn State administration, ArtsFest, and the borough, THAW certainly came to town with the best of intentions.

The sentiment behind the festival was to curb issues related to the drinking-heavy student holiday. State Patty’s Day has traditionally been one of the most problematic weekends for alcohol-related crimes and hospitalizations.

THAW was supposed to turn the faux holiday into a community-oriented event, something that could bring local families and students together for film showings, comedians, and musical performances. But in the end, it seemed that the festival’s first year was unfortunately a flop, failing to garner any real traction. The town did see a slight influx of families — more than a typical State Patty’s Day — but it wasn’t enough to slow the holiday.

There were 88 total arrests and citations over the weekend between the borough and campus, compared to 86 the previous year. Mt. Nittany Medical Center treated 15 patients for alcohol-related hospitalizations compared to 10 in 2014.

But it was more than just crime statistics that made State Patty’s Day 2015 feel like a minimal yet tangible revival. There was something in the air, more reminiscent of 2012 and earlier than the dulled-down version of the holiday we saw the last two years.

It’s hard to put it into words, but State Patty’s Day had a noticeable hop in its step on Saturday. The bars were open for the first time in two years. Students sporting green poured on the streets from the morning onward. The line outside Indigo was the longest I’ve seen it in four years here. In short, it felt more like a real celebration than the forced shell of a holiday we’ve seen in recent years.

Vinh Vuong, THAW’s spokesperson, said that the organizers were pleased with the turnout for the first annual edition of the festival in spite of State Patty’s Day’s apparent resurgence.

“The turnout was good for our first year. Many of the events were at least half to three-quarters full. There was definitely a noticeable increase in local and families around downtown,” Vuong said. “The organizers are pleased and are excited for the planning of next year’s. We were pleasantly surprised at the amount of people who turned up — and of all ages including children, students, and many locals.”

I’m not sure what Vuong saw over the weekend, but I was able to stop by quite a few THAW events on Friday and Saturday and was hard-pressed to find any signs of significant attendance. In fact, there were just a handful of attendees at a few events, enough to count on just one or two hands. The Collegian reported that comedic juggler Michael Rosman drew in just 14 people in the State Theatre on Saturday night for what should have been a headlining event.

Vuong said that the festival is working to “recap and identify areas of weakness to improve on and areas of strengths to build on.”

“We think THAW held its own and proved to be a great alternative to State Patty’s. It felt like a usual college town weekend — maybe close to a football weekend — but I believe THAW made the weekend more of a community feel then just a drinking event,” he said. “We hope that this becomes the Winter Festival and offers what the ArtsFest does during the summer.”

That would be wonderful to see and a welcome annual addition to the spring semester, but it’s tough to swallow the argument that THAW had any legitimate influence or impact on State Patty’s Day. If it wasn’t for the media coverage preempting THAW, you likely wouldn’t have noticed that there was an alternative activity occurring this past Saturday. Local arts festivals with local musicians are valuable opportunities to any community, but to frame it as an alternative for students was probably an inauspicious message.

State College police chief Thomas King said that the holiday has decreased in severity from prior years.

“From a police activity perspective, there was nothing backwards or negative that occurred. It was much calmer, and very manageable,” King said. “The THAW-event weekend we found to be very successful. For a big, special-event weekend, our activity was very reasonable, and not off the charts like it was in 2012 or 2011.”

I understand that the local police chief has to toe the party line, but State Patty’s Day did see increased crime numbers for the first time in years. It seemed that the holiday was on the downslope. There’s no doubt that there are concerns among the administration and borough over State Patty’s Day picking up some steam this year.

King can stay positive within the confines of media briefings, but refusing to use the words “State,” “Patty’s,” and “Day” aren’t going to make the problem go away. Just across College Avenue, University Police Chief Tyrone Parham similarly refused to say the holiday’s name last week.

“We’re not calling it that. We’re told that [this weekend] is going to be called THAW,” he said.

To be clear, I fully support everything that THAW stands for and intends to do over State Patty’s Day weekend. I’m a big fan of the local arts and make it a point to see local bands and check out local art shows on a regular basis. Local arts are and always will be something that draw the community together, and that’s important in any town, but especially in a town with such a diversified population that often seems to have contrasting interests.

THAW will go through some growing paints in its early years. Any arts festival of its size is bound to need time in order to gain some legs. I don’t doubt that THAW will be able to book some real, household name talent going forward and at the very least, distract from the drinking-related festivities downtown.

While I’m not sure that a local arts festival or even a Movin’ On-esque lineup of star-studded music acts are the answer for State Patty’s Day, I am sure of one thing. Pretending that THAW Festival was a huge success and that State Patty’s Day doesn’t exist won’t change anything. We need to band together as a community to ensure that THAW grows from what it was this year: a small albeit ambitious local arts festival that shot for the stars with hopes of big-name acts, landed on a cloud with a diversified lineup of local talent, and can only improve from here.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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