Enduring spirit at Lafayette Art & Wine Festival
By Lou Fancher
Surprisingly, Lafayette Chamber of Commerce executive director Jay Lifson says the devastating three-alarm fire that destroyed the chamber’s building on July 12, was an opportunity.
The 22nd annual Lafayette Art & Wine Festival on Sept. 16-17, he suggests is a terrific, rise-from-the-ashes way to celebrate the enduring, evolving, enterprising spirit of the city and its people.
The fire cast the chamber and eight other businesses at 100 Lafayette Circle, including La Finestra restaurant, onto the streets, searching for new homes.
“After the fire, I skipped all the levels of grief. I went straight to organize and conquer,” says Lifson. “The next morning we had the mayor, City Council, fire and police, and our insurance agents at Papillon. We were sitting at the table, planning.”
Lost in the fire were office furniture and equipment, pamphlets, directories, historic photos, staff members’ keepsakes, the chamber’s original letter of incorporation and other materials.
“Fortunately, we’d just redone our conference room and didn’t have any original art. We had photographs that can be replaced,” he says.
What was not lost in the fire — beyond the salvaged contents of a storage unit that held special events supplies and signage — was the chamber’s mission to continually adapt to new forces and influential experiences.
“It’s an opportunity to maybe redefine ourselves,” says Lifson. “We’re anchored to the past but … the fire gave us an opportunity to stop and think about what we might do differently as we go on. I promise you, we’ll do more disaster preparedness in the future. We lost stuff, but even so, we were up and running within days.”
Not just running, but the chamber made sure the other business owners knew about emergency loans and rapid re-employment programs.
Working with the Lafayette Community Foundation, a grant supported by tax-deductible donations was established to fund business costs not covered by insurance. A host of new questions arose: What kinds of housing do people need? What jobs will there be in the future? What role will the chamber have in a downtown where people live, shop and seek entertainment in unprecedented ways?
“It used to be that chambers were for maps and references. Now, there are other places to get that information so the way we source information and the topics will be different,” Lifson predicts.
Offering simple networking isn’t enough. Lifson says social media must be incorporated: business done the old-fashioned way is over. A young professionals group he mentions, although not all chamber members at this time, has more than 200 people. “We make our networking relevant, educational, hot-at-this-time topical. We have social media workshops, free and public. At mixers, we recruit.”
Primarily, Lifson and membership services director Barbara Gilmore stick to a mandate: understand the businesses of the people who approach them and be certain the chamber can help them meet their goals.
2017 festivalSimilar selectivity applies to events like the Art & Wine festival.
“We’re always looking at new stuff,” says Lifson, “but the size of the footprint can’t grow and I’m not sure we want it to. It has an intimate feel. Usually the way we make it better is that we improve the quality. The rest is operational: how fast we can get somebody through a line or set up and break down the festival.”
For that, a 35-member committee and roughly 500 volunteers illustrate community involvement. The chamber donates $20,000 from proceeds to local nonprofits and close to $15,000 to clubs and groups that volunteer.
The festival attracts over a two-day span up to 80,000 people. This year’s festival features four stages with local professional and youth performances, a plethora of foods and beverages including premium wine and craft beers, a Kids Zone, Local Artists Alley and the VIP Parking Sweepstakes.
As for the chamber and businesses displaced by the fire, Lifson says a 1,000-square-foot space at 251 Lafayette Circle — just around the corner from their former digs — will be the chamber’s new home as of November.
La Finestra chef-owner Jeff Assadi has continued to do catering while considering two restaurant locations, one in Lafayette and one in Moraga. Other business owners have found new locations or are working for other companies.
Pleased to remain accessible in the downtown core, Lifson says the chamber’s new location even includes one upgrade: more parking for staff and visitors.