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What it took to get the Locust Street Festival up and running again

A large group of people running underneath a starting-line banner in the street.
Locust Street Festival / Facebook
Runners at the starting line of the Locust Street Beer Run in 2012.

Festivals define Milwaukee. It is literally a city of them. Then, one day, they were gone — victims of the pandemic like so many other things. Concerts. Restaurants. Movies. All put aside as we tried to protect ourselves and each other.

One of the many questions we asked while navigating a course through COVID, especially as we allowed hope to creep back in, was whether these things would come back. Many businesses we loved didn’t. Movies and concerts took time and, in a lot of ways, aren’t all the way there yet.

So what about the festivals? Ones like Summerfest seemed more certain to return. But Milwaukee is the City of Festivals because of the smaller celebrations that dot the map, the ones that lean even harder on plain old people power to keep going. For them to continue, that fuel would need to be in even greater supply, or else some very real existential questions would start to arise.

The Locust Street Festival found itself in that perilous position after establishing itself as a constant of the community. Since 1976, we could count on it to return when the weather started getting warm. Then, in 2020, it went away and stayed there for the next couple years.

As organizers started thinking about this year, there were very real “now or never” worries about it continuing. Fortunately, a group of residents and business owners from the neighborhood stepped up in a big way, driven by their neighbors and the wider Milwaukee community to get the festival firmly back on its feet.

“We’re talking about something 44 years in the works. People don’t want those things to go away,” said Toni Eichinger, chief operating officer at Riverwest craft brewer Black Husky. “We’re committed this year to bringing it back this year in as full force as we could. There was talk about not doing the beer run, and we were like, ‘No. That’s crazy talk.’ I’m pretty hopeful, actually. People are waiting for this.”

The Locust Street Beer Runis undoubtedly the spark plug of the festival, getting the day started on an appropriately joyous note while bringing people to the event nice and early to make it feel like the daylong celebration it is. Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery, it’s exactly what the name implies: your standard fun run except swap out all the water stations for beer.

Four people dressed in costumes from the video game "Pac-Man" smile at the camera at a local fun run.
Locust Street Festival / Facebook
Some of the hardcore runners at a past Locust Street Beer Run.

The 1.6-mile jog — sprinting is never a good idea during a distance event, but especially in this case — winds through Riverwest with four mandatory stops for a cup of Lakefront refreshment. That sounds like an activity that sells itself, but registrations are lagging a little more than organizers would like to see at this point.

“It’s great to have Locust Street back again this year, especially since we’re having the beer run,” said Tim Eichinger, co-owner and brewer at Black Husky. “Attendance is down a little bit, but we’re optimistic that things will pick up.

“The community deserves to have a festival like this,” he continued. “We feel stewardship in that the neighborhood is there, and it’s a great neighborhood to be in. But it needs things to happen to keep people engaged and develop and grow.”

The folks from Black Husky are part of the aforementioned neighborhood group determined to get the festival on solid ground again. The Garden Park Association technically formed as a not-for-profit to promote the development of the park near the corner of Locust and Bremen. Beyond Black Husky, it also includes individuals from Woodland Pattern Book Center, Rockhaus and Riverwest Currents.

That’s the people power helping make the festival a reality once again, with Swarmm Events making a big contribution by lending its experience and expertise to reviving the beer run. Organizers have also breathed life back into the music side of things, with 46 acts spread across the event’s seven performance areas.

Local vendors are just as eager to get back to setting up shop on the street. The reality is that a handful of businesses that were around for the last festival in 2019 didn’t make it to the other side of the pandemic. But that hasn’t dampened the overall enthusiasm — or the resolve to ensure the Locust Street Festival gets its 44th installment and beyond.

“There is some truth that if things don’t come back, they just sort of fade,” Toni Eichinger said. “But Riverwest owns their events. I get so many vendors saying they’ve done it for 15 years, 20 years, always setting up in the same spot every year. That’s the feedback I’m getting. There’s such an excitement for it to be back.”

The Locust Street Festival returns Sunday, June 11, with live music, food and drink, local vendors, art and more. The beer run kicks off the day at 11:30 a.m. You can find more information about the run, including how to register, on the Locust Street Festival website.