King, Indianola deserve better

By BRYAN DAVIS EDITOR,

This year’s B.B. King Homecoming festival seemed to have everything.

There was a great lineup of established touring musicians that rocked Fletcher Park from 2 p.m. until well after dark.

There was blues, gospel, R&B and rock. Something for everybody.

There was great food. There was free water and there were tall boys for sale for anyone who wanted to drink beer. There was even a fireworks show at the end of the evening.

There was one very important element missing from the hours-long event though.

People.

The 2019 crowd was even slimmer than the one last year, which boasted less than a thousand attendees.

Before my time in Indianola, I am told the Homecoming festival would draw thousands each year, granted Mr. King was still alive then and was the major draw.

That being said, the branding for a festival with over three decades under its belt should be holding up better, even in the absence of its founder and namesake.

Throughout the Delta and the state of Mississippi, there are countless festivals that draw heavy crowds each year - even in the scorching summer heat - that cannot and do not boast the brand recognition of first-ballot Rock & Roll Hall of Famer B.B. King.

King himself built many successful brands over the years, and the Homecoming brand grew strong with his blessing.

Something just doesn’t add up about the drastic decline in attendance for a festival that seems to be doing everything the right way each year.

The festival is promoted heavily in national publications and on social media. Representatives from the B.B. King Museum are constantly on the road, promoting King’s legacy, and ads have been everywhere locally, from this newspaper to posters, to radio spots spread throughout the region.

This issue is important to Indianola for a number of reasons.

The first and foremost is that a festival with a rich history that provides great entertainment for a modest gate fee has almost zero support from its locals.

The festival should be drawing hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists to the city each June, but that isn’t happening either. Local support, however, would help in boosting the festival’s numbers, and thus would help in securing bigger sponsors.

The bigger the sponsors, the better chance the festival’s promoters have of getting more international acts to come play.

That could help boost the tourism aspect.

It is disappointing to see that out of the tens of thousands of people across the Delta region, the festival is only pulling crowds in the low to mid hundreds.

The second reason this is such an important issue for us is that these shrinking crowds are beginning to do more harm to King’s legacy than help it.

Third, the museum cannot continue to lose money year after year on this venture.

The museum itself has come to mean so much to Indianola’s youth and its tourism industry. The sustainability of that institution has to come first.

Homecoming is set to turn 40 years old next year. That’s a big anniversary for the festival.

Pretty soon, Indianola must decide whether it wants to have a Homecoming festival or not have one.

This is a tough pill for some to swallow, but this is the reality of the situation.

It is abundantly clear after watching two of these festivals that the town is nowhere near united on this issue.

There are those who fervently support the festival, and there are some who could care less about it. There is also a camp that simply takes it for granted that it will always be here, because it is so entrenched.

That’s not a good recipe for success.

Even those who could care less about it should support it simply for the economic benefits it could bring to the town.

I hope that those who are not as bullish about the festival or King’s legacy will come around to the fact that the first week in June each year is a great economic opportunity for a city that doesn’t have a lot of economic opportunities to start with.

This is as much about economic development as it is about music.

Even those who may never set foot in Fletcher Park have a chance to reap the financial rewards from such an event.

Simply put, No. 40 cannot go down like No. 39 did this past weekend. In order to avoid that, all hands are going to have to be on deck.

People who may not normally get along with each other are going to have to learn to get along with each other. That’s what community leaders do in order to create the best possible outcome for their town.

If folks aren’t willing to put old grudges aside in order to create a successful festival next June, we need to have a serious conversation about whether No. 40 needs to take place at all.

The King name deserves better. Indianola deserves better.

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