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Gateway Heritage Festival holds lasting impression upon Gateway City

'There were in excess of 25,000 people that were at that concert and we brought in Stompin’ Tom Connors twice, and again those numbers were above 20,000 for those shows'

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

It began as a small grassroots festival in the mid-1980s and ballooned to an event that brought in thousands of people to North Bay for at least one weekend every summer.

The Gateway Heritage Festival officially ran until 2007 before being re-branded as Summer in the Park.

There were several successful years under that title but in 2018, Summer in the (Arena) Park was a shell of what was, and what could have been a money-making endeavour for years to come for the city.

Over time the once a year festival diluted itself for many reasons and in 2019 it was re-imagined again under the title “Bay Days”.  But with the COVID-19 protocols in place, 2020 marks the first time in a few decades in which there was no concert/festival/show of any kind put on by the City of North Bay.

It is amazing to look back and see how big this event once became because its beginnings lie withing a real grassroots community initiative that grew into one of the biggest attractions around this part of the province.

The city’s Parks, Recreation and Leisure Director at the time was Dave Saad.

“I got a call one day from Mayor Stan Lawlor that there was a guy in his office who had an idea to come to North Bay with some sort of festival and he asked if I wanted to talk to him. I wasn’t sure if Stan was just trying to get him out of his office or what the deal was,” recalls Saad.

It turns out this visitor was actually from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and they were operating a festival at the Canadian National Exhibition in a building that was called the Heritage Pavilion.

At the same time, Saad says, “We used to operate what was called the Mayors Kiddies Day where we brought all the playgrounds from the city together in Thompson Park and it was a big festival with food and games and activities and it culminated with a fireworks show. Well the province heard about this festival we were doing and they had this idea to partner with six mini regional festivals around Ontario and they wanted to piggyback off this.”

The Minister told Saad they could offer a show stage, a show band, and host a community luncheon to launch the event and they would commit $5,000 to go towards operating the festival.

Saad had one thing on his mind, “What’s the catch?”

It’s pretty rare for a government employee to waltz into your municipal office and offer you money, but here it was sitting in front of Saad who then called Cathy Seguin to fill her in.

“She was the program coordinator and I gave her the pitch and said ‘They want to run it on the long weekend in August,’” says Saad.

“It was already April when the gentleman came to us with the idea. But after talking about it we said 'let's take this to the Mayor' and give it a shot. And it was one of those things that sounded too good to be true, but we took a shot and never regretted it.”

From its very beginnings, a summertime festival in North Bay had its critics. Saad says, “Calling it the Heritage Festival was a bit of a sticking point with people because it wasn’t based on anything inherently heritage about North Bay. But in the beginning, it was never about the city’s heritage, it was about promoting the Heritage Pavilion at the CNE. So we tied Gateway to it and called it the Gateway Heritage Festival.”

And the inaugural entertainment might have been memorable for the wrong reasons. “The province sent us a band called Washboard Willie. And the guy actually played a washboard,” says Saad.

Willie and his washboard weren’t the only act on stage as the city brought in a Beatles tribute band as well.

But from the get-go, there was an understanding that this could be something big for the city.

“We had no idea what the response was going to be after we did a launch for the event. All we had to work with was the $5,000 the province gave us, plus the stuff we were already doing for The Mayors Kiddies Days with the two bands. Literally thousands of people showed up to Lee Park to see The Beatles tribute band….and Washboard Willie,” says Saad.

“We also ran a small barbecue and sold things like ice cream and pop and that’s how we made a little bit of extra money that first year, but that’s really how it all started. A small meeting in my office, a lot of hard work from Cathy Seguin to organize the whole thing, and thousands of people saying ‘Hey, this is different, this is fun, I hope we can do this again.”’

Everything was free that first year as well, which probably helped with the big crowd, but from that point forward, the organizers knew they had something that could really grow and be an economic opportunity for North Bay.

Saad said, “After we got into it for a year or two we decided to sell Heritage Festival buttons. So we had people selling these things on the street that came with a number on the back, and we got some prizes and then Peter McKeown would pull a number during the morning on his radio show, and whoever had the corresponding number of that button would win a small prize, but that was really the first big fundraiser to help make this event grow.”

It caught on for a number of reasons that Saad points to including the fact that it was affordable and the entertainment was something everyone wanted to see. Plus there were additions such as the Country Open. But perhaps the attraction that was going to really set the Gateway Heritage Festival apart from any other musical event around the area was a tie in with the military base.

Saad says, “The base was doing their air shows and the Honorary Colonel was Phil Richardson and he said they had a product but they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to make it happen such as volunteers and organizers etcetera.”

Saad says a meeting was held at City Hall to discuss the possibility of combining the two events.

“That’s when the festival took off,” says Saad (no pun intended).

“We started to go to the bigger bands, once we included the air show,” says Saad.

“One of the first really big names I can remember was Roch Voisine and they estimated that there were in excess of 25,000 people that were at that concert and we brought in Stompin’ Tom Connors twice, and again those numbers were above 20,000 for those shows.”

With bigger names for the entertainment side, and more attractions included, they had to start charging admission to get into the grounds. Saad says what was happening was forged wristbands, and people selling them offsite and there was also a need for an external management community whose sole focus was on the festival, away from the day to day grind of what would need to be taken care of while working in any department of a municipal office.

Saad says, “It was made up of people who had expertise in their own specific areas and it was arguably the best committee that was ever set up to look over anything in the city at that time because everyone knew what their job was and they made it happen.”

“When you start to think of the combination of major entertainment, with an air-show made up of international demo and sky diving teams and the Country Open, and a projection of over 100,000 people taking part over the course of the weekend, you know you’ve done something right,” says Saad.

He adds at its peak, the budget had grown to $1.3 million. He says the fundraising covered their costs and the festival was at the very least breaking even most years. Saad says what the Gateway Heritage Festival became was bigger than anyone on that initial committee could have ever anticipated.

“I’ve got give credit to the management committee, run by Cathy Seguin because with her and her group we had the best of the best in every aspect that would enable this thing to become a success,” says Saad.

“We had people who would come out every year to volunteer for the same positions. We had an equipment station over at Lee Park at our maintenance building and there were two ladies, that God help you, if you didn’t let them have that role every year, because they just wanted to do something to help run the festival. That was the dedication we had and the kinds of people we had that helped grow the event.”

Saad also says the festival had tremendous support from the people who were running the city at that time.

“Lawlor as I mentioned and Jack Burrows were the two sitting Mayors at the time that I was involved and they were absolute champions for the festival. They were running corporate fundraising out of their office and in the end, when we needed a little bump, they were raising upwards of $30-40.000 right at the deadline to make sure we could have enough money to put on the festival.”

After more than 20 years Saad says, “It got to a point where the cost to run the festival had outgrown what we were capable of doing. That and with the change of the times, I guess everything has a shelf life and we just knew it was time to move on.”

The festival was cancelled in 2007 and re-branded as Summer in the Park shortly after. No matter what name it flies under, anytime a committee decides to organize an event that brings people together for live musical entertainment, you’ll hear the whispers and the comments about the lasting impact the Gateway Heritage Festival had on this city.

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at matthew.sookram@rci.rogers.com