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Bustling downtown brings new life to Kent's annual Heritage Fest

By Lance Lysowski correspondent

Several new restaurants and businesses will receive their first major welcome to downtown Kent on Saturday, as the 18th annual Kent Heritage Festival kicks off at 9 a.m. around Water Street.

An estimated 25,000 people will ascend upon the city’s new, bustling business district for the Fourth of July celebration, which will feature three stages of live music, 120 vendors, a children’s play area and a fireworks display at 10 p.m.  The one-day event will run from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m.

The all-day event will showcase the dramatic redevelopment that downtown Kent has undergone over the past 12 months.  Along with the new restaurants, the PARTA Central Gateway Parking Deck will be open to the public, as well as the Kent State Hotel & Conference Center.  Lori Wemhoff, Executive Director of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, said the event would provide an invaluable opportunity for businesses downtown.  Peering out the window of the Chamber’s new office on E. Main Street, Wemhoff spoke of the facelift the city has undergone in such a short period of time.

“There are people walking up and down the streets, into stores and restaurants all day, every day and that is really what it’s all about,” Wemhoff said.  “The goal was to make downtown Kent a destination, and I truly believe that is what it has become.  Once those 20,000-some people come to town Saturday the sixth, some of them may have not been here before or they haven’t been here since the last festival, they’re going to see a whole new, revitalized downtown.”

The all-day celebration features the Jeff Graham Memorial Fireworks, live music and entertainment on the three stages throughout downtown, as well as food, information and craft booths.  The AMETEK Tree City 5K for United Way is also being held on Saturday evening at Dix Stadium.  With the Kent State Hotel open for business and booking rooms for the city’s largest event, as well as the 360-spot parking deck next door, Wemhoff believes this year’s festivities will truly display the evolution the city has undergone and the hard work of those responsible for the positive makeover.

“I’ve been in this position with the Chamber as Executive Director for almost four years and it is amazing to see the energy that is in downtown Kent-- from the existing businesses, as well as the new,” Wemhoff said. “It’s a team effort—believe me—from the city, the businesses themselves, the Chamber.  It is not any one entity.  It’s everyone working together and it seems to be working.”

The Kent Heritage Festival Car Show will be located on West College and West Erie streets, as interested car owners are encouraged to arrive early to ensure a spot.  The festival is planned and operated by the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with Kent’s United Services Organization.

During last year’s event, Erie Street and other sections of downtown were closed to traffic because of the large amount of construction, but this year will offer an opportunity for business owners across downtown.  This year, construction is minimal as workers are merely completing the Kent State Esplanade Extension and Bricco Restaurant that will be located on Erie Street.

“The businesses -- that’s one of their biggest days,” Wemhoff said.  “For a lot of them, it’s going to be their first up front and personal with the Heritage Fest, because they weren’t open last year.  I can’t imagine them not being excited, and anticipating that many people in downtown Kent in one day.”