By Kendall Balchan
When visitors to this week’s VillageFest meander through the streets of Downtown Palm Springs Thursday evening, they’ll also be taking part in a bit of history. The city’s popular nighttime event will be celebrating its 30th anniversary, even though the math to arrive at that number is a little tricky, thanks to the pandemic.
The event that sees streets closed every Thursday evening and replaced with vendors of all types has been ubiquitous with Palm Springs since it began in 1991. Now in its 31st year of operation, organizers are choosing to celebrate 30 years this Thursday due to its closure through much the first year of the battle against COVID-19.
It was that closure, however, that really drove home how popular the nighttime market is to visitors and how proud locals are to show it off.
“I was honestly surprised how much of a demand there was for us to reopen,” said Joy Brown Meredith, president of the Main Street Palm Springs business association and one of the early creators of VillageFest. “We had so many people calling and commenting online. I think people were really craving an outdoor experience like VillageFest at the height of the pandemic.”
VillageFest was created to aid Downtown business owners, who had a craving of their own. They needed something that would help draw weekend visitors to the city a little earlier than usual.
“During the recession, the city was trying really hard to drum up interest and bring more people in,” recalls Meredith, the owner of Crystal Fantasy on North Palm Canyon Drive. Added Dan Gonnella, who chairs of the city’s VillageFest Board: “The City Council needed events to extend the weekend and keep tourists in town longer. That’s why VillageFest is on a Thursday.”
Now, for many locals and visitors alike, VillageFest is the de facto start of the weekend.
In the beginning, about 50 vendors lined Palm Canyon Drive from Amado to Tahquitz. Now at 200 vendors strong at its peak, the street closures have almost doubled. VillageFest now stretches about a half-mile from Amado to Baristo. There’s something for everyone, including locals and tourists.
“Whenever I have visitors in town, one of the first things they ask about is VillageFest. It’s become a tourist draw of its own,” says Gonnella. He estimates at least 5,000 shoppers visit VillageFest each week, but that number would almost double pre-pandemic.
Walking up and down the street during VillageFest, you’ll notice how different it is from most other street fairs. Gonnella says that’s by design.
“We’re not just another swap meet,” he offered. That’s due in part to stricter standards. Each item sold must be at least 75% handmade. That helps weed out some of the more low-effort offerings at other street fairs.
“There’s a pretty stringent screening process. We don’t let everyone in that applies,” says Gonnella.
The Board also strives to have a good balance of vendors, which wasn’t always possible. “There was a time when we had way too many soap makers or way too many candle vendors,” Meredith said as she recalled some of the craft trends of the past decades. “But now we have a good balance.”
The extra foot traffic doesn’t just help the VillageFest vendors, it also helps the nearby restaurants and brick-and-mortar businesses, most of which stay open during the evening event.
Meredith said some days during the heat of summer her business will more than double thanks to VillageFest.
“No one wants to shop during the day when it’s so hot,” she said. “But as soon as the sun goes down and the locals emerge for the day, they want to get outside. VillageFest is perfect for that.”
VillageFest can also serve as a springboard for business owners. “It’s a lower barrier of entry for people just starting out. It’s a steppingstone where they can test out the demand, and it’s less risky than committing to a brick-and-mortar storefront,” says Gonnella.
Meredith proudly remembers local businesses that got their start at VillageFest, like Brandini Toffee and The Heyday burger restaurant.
“There’s something so heartwarming about seeing a business that started at VillageFest thrive,” she said. “Every time I drive past one of those businesses, I think, ‘Wow! I had a small part in that!’”
There is something for everyone at VillageFest. Diverse food vendors ensure visitors can enjoy a meal they can’t get anywhere else in the desert. Different entertainers set up at each block, singing hits by Frank Sinatra, classic rock, and even breakdancing.
The event also serves as an information hub. Beyond things to buy, people can register to vote or learn more about a local religious group. It’s also a public gathering place: Teen girls gather around the handmade jewelry. Homeowners decide on which piece of fine photography would look best in their home. Children test out the toys and learn about terrariums. Veterans cluster around the American Legion and Palm Springs Air Museum booths.
But beyond the woodworking, pottery, and pizza-throwing, what has remained at the heart of VillageFest for 30 years has been community. It can be hard to forge meaningful connections in a place with so many transplants who may have stronger ties in their hometowns.
“The Valley is made up of transplants,” Gonnella remarked. “So many people move here after living most of their lives elsewhere.”
SCHOLARSHIP BALL: More than 300 people packed the Palm Springs Hilton’s Horizon Ballroom Saturday evening for the 52nd Negro Academic Scholarship Fund scholarship ball. The Palm Springs-based organization handed out 11 scholarships to local high school seniors and celebrated more than 350 who came before them since its inception in 1970. Dr. Oron Jackson spoke about reverence during his keynote speech, reminding the 2022 recipients that, “The folks in this room sacrificed and they laid flat to create a bridge.”
COMPLETE STORY: With reverence to past, scholarship recipients reminded they’re not facing their futures alone
NEW BUSINESS AT OLD SEE’S: One of the most popular storefronts in town looks to be getting filled following the departure of See’s Candy. The candy business left its Downtown location at 144 South Palm Canyon Dr. last year after decades in business here, leaving behind disappointed fans but a promise to return to the city at some point in the future. A sign on the window of the La Plaza building that was formerly home to See’s says a business named Acai Oasis is coming soon. The business is also now listed in the La Plaza directory. Acai (ah-sigh-EE) berries are a grape-like fruit native to the rainforests of South America. Acai bowls, essentially thick smoothies loaded with toppings, are popular on the West Coast and offered at a few locations in Palm Springs already.
HONOR FOR HOSPITAL: Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs announced today it has received an evaluation of 100 and the designation of “LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader” in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 15th anniversary edition of the Healthcare Equality Index. The index is the nation’s foremost benchmarking survey of healthcare facilities on policies and practices dedicated to the equitable treatment and inclusion of their LGBTQ+ patients, visitors and employees. A record 906 healthcare facilities actively participated in the 2022 HEI survey and 496 of those earned an “LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader” designation.
JOB FAIR: Marriott Vacations Worldwide is hosting a hiring event to fill jobs across a variety of departments at its Palm Springs area locations. The company plans to hire 600 people over the next three months. The event is scheduled for Tuesday from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. at Marriott’s Desert Springs Villa in Palm Desert. Interested applicants can find more information and pre-register here. All new hourly associates for open positions are eligible for a $1,000 sign-on bonus.
? Today’s events
- A teen art contest continues at the Palm Springs Public Library. It runs through April 8 and prizes are offered.
- The Mizell Center offers multiple programs and classes today, starting at 8 a.m.
- Free Covid-19 testing is offered outside the Palm Springs Convention Center starting at 8:30 a.m.
- Community Impact Grants are presented tonight to multiple city businesses at Oscar’s, starting at 5 p.m.
- The Parks and Recreation Commission meets tonight via Zoom at 5:30 p.m.
- The Waring International Piano Competition Gala is this evening at 6 p.m. in Rancho Mirage.
For more events in Palm Springs, check the complete community calendar. Want your event listed? Just click here.
? What to watch for
- Groundbreaking for a new CV Link segment will take place Tuesday at Demuth Park, starting at 9 a.m.
- The Palm Springs City Council meets for a special study session on vacation rentals at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
- The United Nations Association of the Coachella Valley presents Covid and Kids: A Mental Health Crisis on Thursday at 4 p.m. via Zoom.
- Palm Canyon Theatre is staging Cyrano de Bergerac from Thursday through Sunday.
- Desert Ensemble Theatre presents All This Intimacy from Friday through Sunday.
- Dezart Performs presents Every Brilliant Thing starting Friday and running through April 10.
- Salon Rouge returns to the Palm Springs International Dance Festival, presented by Nickerson-Rossi Dance, with Ballroom Bash! on Friday, starting at 6 p.m. at Desert Rose Playhouse.
- The fifth annual STEM Conference for families, presented by Palm Springs Unified School District, is Saturday April 2 at Raymond Cree Middle School, starting at 9 a.m.
- The Palm Springs Animal Shelter’s Faux Fur Ball is Saturday, April 2, at 6 p.m. at the Palm Springs Air Museum.
- The Palm Springs Historical Society presents a talk titled The Evolution of Human Rights in Palm Springs on Wednesday April 6 at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, starting at 5:30 p.m.
- The Havurah of the Desert is now accepting reservations for a 2nd-night community Seder, planned for Saturday, April 16. Reservations are $45 and can be made by going here.