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Decatur Celebration: Despite heat, crowds fill downtown streets for annual festival

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DECATUR — They braved heat and humidity, all in the name of Decatur Celebration and this year's theme, "I’m Here for the Party."

Streets were filled throughout Saturday for day two of the 33rd annual festival in downtown Decatur, kicking off the morning with the Razzle Dazzle Goodtimes Parade and ending with a thumping performance by the rapper T.I. that packed the crowd onto North Franklin Street for blocks. 

Charles Sanders brought 30 others from St. Louis to see T.I. on the Saturday Main Stage show. Knowing the event was general seating, he arrived four hours before the start.

“I’m just here for the music,” he said. “Whatever you all paid for him, he is worth it.”

Heat-related illness were the most common ailment medical personnel treated throughout the day, although the warmth didn't affect Heinkel’s Hot Dog Eating Contest winner Brandon Clark. As a construction worker, Clark must work in all types of weather.

“If it is 100 degrees, I’m working eight hours, or if it’s zero degrees, I’m working eight hours,” he said. “It helps me out, but it probably affects (the competition) more.”

It also affected Knockerball Max owner Dan Nash. His game features large inflatable balls into which people climb and bump into one another.

“You are going to get warm in there. You will break a sweat,” he said. “In the evening, it is a good idea.”

“It is going good,” said event producer Lori Sturgill on Saturday, as temperatures soared passed 90 degrees under sunny skies. “The right people are here to take care of things as they come up.”

The event relies on an army of volunteers to transform downtown blocks into the festival site, featuring 60 food items, numerous games and various stages. Country music star Gretchen Wilson was the headliner Friday. Rock group Daughtry and Christian band Crowder are the Sunday headliners. The acts have attracted visitors from out of town to Decatur, and churches from throughout Central Illinois plan to bring bus loads to see Crowder.

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The Ferris wheel lights up the sky in the Civic Center parking lot during Decatur Celebration Saturday night. 

Sanders said he didn’t mind the $15 charge, until he found out the festival was free only two years ago. “Before I knew, I wouldn’t have had a problem with the $15,” he said.

Organizers of the festival added a perimeter fence and started charging admission to offset financial issues, saying the revenue is needed to secure the event’s future. Financial records obtained by the Herald & Review in June showed the event has operated at a loss for six consecutive years. General admission wristbands were $10 in advance and $15 at the gate. Children 12 and under are free. 

Security workers at the Celebration gates said they heard some complaints about the price of wristbands. Angie Rice was stationed at the northeast corner selling wristbands to those visiting the festival for the first time this year.

“They are saying the price is too high,” Rice said. “(They say) it doesn’t make sense for them to pay coming in, because they still have other stuff they have to pay for.”

For others, a bigger issue was the location of entrances to the fence. Gate entrances are located on the four corners of the festival: on North Street near the Decatur Civic Center and west of Water Street, at Merchant and East Main Streets, and at East Main and Franklin streets.

“It’s not the area they are used to (entering) from the past,” said Mike Todd, who was working security at the southeast entrance. “Lots of folks park on one side then walked past the entrance.”

For Celebration vendor and longtime attendee Heather Tirpak, the fence was actually a plus.

“It keeps the people who don’t want to be here anyway out,” said Tirpak, of Cerro Gordo. “Also, anybody who wants to cause problems, it keeps them out.”

Tirpak joined the ranks of Celebration craft vendors last year, selling handmade headbands and hair accessories from her business, Baby Beauty Bands.

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Mikalan Evans, Kolton Becket, and Andrew Pierson play knockerball Saturday at a booth owned by Knockerball Max the Decatur Celebration. Online gallery at

But she’s been a fan of the event all her life. Tirpak said she’s been coming since she was 7 years old, and doesn’t plan on stopping.

As for the price of admission, she said it’s more than fair.

“You can’t go to the State Fair for $3 a day,” she said. “You can’t even park there for that.”

Organizers estimated the 2017 festival brought in 30,000 visitors, according to documents submitted to the city. Sturgill said she will not have this year's final numbers for attendance and profit for weeks. 

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A view from the top of the Civic Center of Franklin Street is pictured during Decatur Celebration Saturday evening. 

“My thought about attendance is it looks like we’ve had great attendance at the shows, but I do not have any numbers to report,” Sturgill said. “I always think it is successful, anytime a group of people pull off something like this with a small staff and a huge number of volunteers, that to me is a success whether it is profitable or not.”

Those who plan to attend today's Celebration have a full schedule of events, including Daughtry, Crowder and the winner of the Battle of the Bands contest. The Miss Illinois Festival Pageant will be held at Decatur Civic Center. The carnival will continue as well as the food and craft vendors. The event runs 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 

Sturgill said visitors can still find something to enjoy.

“I hope and pray that when we see the numbers that that supports the good feeling I have now,” Sturgill said. “As long as people have fun, and we can pay the bills, we are good to go.”

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Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR


"Together Decatur" Columnist and Food and Drink Reporter

“Together Decatur” columnist and food and drink reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for the Herald & Review.

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