Monona’s fantastic Fourth: How one popular celebration has survived and grown

Editor's note: An expanded story on summer festivals can be found in the May 2016 issue of In Business magazine.

Summer festivals in south-central Wisconsin are plentiful and often serve dual purposes: raising awareness of a local municipality and supporting local causes. But who pays for them when budgets are tightening, and how important are they to local economies?

One such event, the Monona Community Festival, scheduled for July 3 and 4 this year at Winnequah Park is a two-day family celebration that has been growing in leaps and bounds for years. For a city within a city, landlocked Monona, with a population approaching 8,000, has a Fourth of July festival that is quickly becoming the go-to event in July.

As some community festivals struggle to find sponsors and volunteers, what’s Monona’s secret sauce?

James Bisbee, a local real estate agent and president of Monona Community Festival Inc., says the Monona festival has succeeded in large part because of the community’s complete buy in, from its police department to public works to the community support. The fire department, for example, handles setup and helps run the festival. In return, firefighters solicit donations at the beer tent gate. It’s become one of the department’s main fundraisers, Bisbee notes.

More than 5,000 people may visit the daytime festivities, while an estimated 40,000 attend the fireworks show alone, not counting the throngs watching from all around the area. And with the Elver Park fireworks canceled this year, Monona’s festival could have a banner year. The event books numerous bands throughout the weekend, and a free Kids from Wisconsin show is always a hit.

“We’re very large now,” Bisbee says. “We have a carnival, art show, full concessions, a Taste of the Fourth featuring local restaurants and food carts from around the area, and some fun competitions.”

He’s been involved for the past 22 years. “When we first started out, bands were enough to pay for the entire festival,” he says. In fact, there was a time when the organization ran everything including the food stands, but the event simply grew too large. It used to make about $15,000 on food, he says, but as the festival’s popularity grew, so did expenses.

For a while, the organization invited volunteer groups in to run stands but found the event would still lose money. Now Monona Community Festivals contracts with the Club Tavern to handle all of its catering and concessions, taking a huge liability off its hands. Inside the Taste Tent, the annual Taste of the Fourth attracts food carts from Monona and beyond.

Over the years, money generated from the event has helped fund community interests like the Monona Library, the parks, scholarships, or the local fire department for thermal imaging and safety equipment.

But that tide may be turning.

Winds of change

“Festival costs are rising at such a rate and beer sales don’t keep up anymore,” Bisbee says. “It’s getting to the point now where sponsors are the answer, and everyone knows it.”

Luckily, Monona’s festival has received strong sponsorship support in the past and this year is no different, with Ho-Chunk, Woodman’s, Monona State Bank, Anytime Fitness, and the Ganser Co. on board to name a few, but it takes a lot of time and effort to pull it all together.

“The biggest key,” Bisbee says, “is finding someone who will go out and knock on doors, someone with the experience and moxie to meet with Ho-Chunk, or corporate management, and make a pitch. You almost have to be self-employed. Every president we’ve had at Monona Community Festival Inc. has been self-employed. If you’re working a 9-to-5 job, I don’t know how you do this. A phone call and letter won’t do it.

“We can’t compete with Shake The Lake, so we have to do the hard work. We have to go out and talk to those in charge. Then our advertising budget goes up because we have to offer [sponsors] something to give them justification for spending money with us. We won’t get the $50,000 sponsorships, but we’ve got to land the smaller amounts.”



Sponsorships in large part cover the cost of the fireworks display, Bisbee says, but other expenses include hiring Dane County deputies for the duration of the event. “We really don’t have anything donated.”

That’s why volunteers are crucial. Monona Community Festival Inc. has a dedicated core of about 30 Monona volunteers who recruit hundreds more during the festival. “We treat them right,” Bisbee says. Volunteers don’t pay for food or drink while they’re working, and at the end of the year they are invited to a banquet.

The festival makes money on beer sales, the carnival [when the weather cooperates], fees collected from Taste of the Fourth, and from artists who display their work at the art fair. There’s also a popular $5,000 hole-in-one challenge with a floating green in Winnequah Park’s lagoon, where thousands pay for a swing but only one lucky person has won thus far.

Another popular event is the sanctioned Wisconsin Wife-Carrying Championship, a timed-race requiring a male to carry a female (not necessarily his wife) through a 278-yard obstacle course. Originating in Finland, the wife-carrying competition is a favorite attraction at Monona’s festival, but it’s also serious business in that the winning couple qualifies to compete at the North American Championships in Maine. If they succeed there, it’s on to the World Championships in Helsinki.

As a nonprofit organization Monona Community Festival Inc. has a 501(c)3 status, and perhaps even more important it has money in the bank. “There’s a rule in our by-laws that the Monona festival keep enough money on hand for the next year’s operating budget, in case of rain,” Bisbee says, adding that it does not purchase rain insurance.

“We’ve always had a very solid rainy day fund. We never touch it; in fact, we’ve added to it over the years.” Rain dampened the festival only once that he can remember, in a year when even Rhythm & Booms was rained out, and several years ago temperatures in the 100s kept people away, but otherwise the Monona festival has enjoyed great Fourth of July weather.

“We just hope we can accumulate enough each year to keep giving money back to the community,” Bisbee says, “but we may just have to be self-sustaining.”

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