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Lilac Parade, Bloomsday, Hoopfest flourish in different ways

The ancient Greeks called their communal gathering spaces “agoras.”

Spokane has three major modern-day agoras: the Lilac Festival’s annual parade, Bloomsday and Hoopfest.

The events share DNA. All are downtown. All require closing down streets. All attract hundreds of thousands of people, from inside and outside the Spokane area.

But they differ from one another in ways that highlight changes in Spokane’s history and culture, though they serve a similar civic purpose.

“They bring the community physically together in ways that ordinarily don’t happen,” said Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis.

“It brings people out of homes and places of work into an agora that most modern communities don’t have.”

Spokane Lilac Festival: The grand dame

The Great Depression was still suffocating the nation when the first Lilac parade floated through downtown in May 1938.

“We wanted beauty, and lilacs grew so well here” explained Darla DeCristoforo, vice president of royalty for the Lilac Festival. “It (began) as a flower show.”

In the parade’s early years, social classes didn’t mingle much. African Americans, as well as members of ethnic groups that settled here to work the mines and railroads, were still marginalized.

But those first parades acted as community equalizers. Everyone came together on the streets of Spokane.

When World War II erupted, the parades went on hiatus. In the 1950s, with its strong ties to Fairchild Air Force Base, the festival resurged, powered by pride in the military.

For decades here, the Armed Forces Torchlight Parade was the annual event. Its Lilac princesses were local celebrities.

But by the early 2000s, as more events competed for sponsors and volunteers, coffers dried up.

When the festival decided to put television rights to the parade up for bid in 2000, no stations were interested – including KHQ, which had telecast the parade live for 44 years as a community service. (The parade has since returned to TV, most recently on KHQ’s sister station, SWX.)

The culture that spawned the parade had changed dramatically over the decades.

People wanted to be participants in events, rather than just spectators. The selection of Lilac princesses competed with dozens of other events, including Hoopfest, where smart and beautiful young women could shine.

The festival had this choice: Change or die.

It changed. The Lilac princess selection process was downsized. Younger people were recruited as directors and volunteers, and the festival opened up sponsorship to small businesses and individuals. Two years ago, the festival started an endowment fund.

“Last year, we came into the black again,” said Myron Bursell, festival president.

Festival officials now feel confident it will still be vital on its 75th anniversary in 2013.

“One of the reasons we’ve endured is we do quite a bit more (than the parade),” explained Sara Desautel, the festival’s vice president for media and communications.

The festival added a car show, and its two royal tea parties at the Davenport Hotel where “little princesses” mingle with the Lilac court are “jam-packed,” Desautel said.

The parade, however, remains the main draw, attracting 200 “parade units” and between 140,000 and 160,000 participants each year.

The Lilac Festival paved the way for future downtown Spokane events.

“The downtown businesses in the 1950s just hated us,” DeCristoforo said.

Eventually, those businesses saw some benefit from closing the streets so thousands of people could stream into the city’s core.

This attitude adjustment by downtown businesses helped when Bloomsday sprang to life in 1977.

Bloomsday: The middle-aged contender

In the 1970s, many baby boomers were in their prime physical years.

“There was nationally the first running boom, starting in the early 1970s,” said race founder and director Don Kardong, 62, a 1976 Olympic marathoner.

“Spokane also had a great distance running tradition, and we came right on the heels of Expo. It created a park and new downtown. We caught the wave of that perfectly.”

The first Lilac Bloomsday Run was held May 1, 1977.

For almost two decades, Bloomsday grew, culminating in its largest race ever, in 1996, when 56,000 finishers ran and walked the entire 7.46 miles.

After that, participation jogged up and down. It’s jogging up again, with almost 51,000 finishers last year – the most since 1996.

Bloomsday is feeling its age in ways that reflect the boomers it has grown older with.

The number of walkers increases each year. Average finish times have slowed.

Its competitive racing component is still huge, but the event is now powered by reunions, reflecting a deeper appreciation of family and friends that often happens as people age.

Bloomsday plans to expand attractions to include more food and music, a la Hoopfest.

“Those are the things people really like,” Kardong said. “They rise to the challenge of doing the (run) but they like the celebration aspect.”

Bloomsday is working hard to attract younger runners and walkers, while hoping race veterans will continue to participate – or transition into volunteers.

And who are the runners in the second national running boom? Marathoners and triathletes; some are baby boomers.

“People want to mark it off their life list,” Kardong said. “So for people training for a marathon, (Bloomsday) becomes part of the landscape.”

Hoopfest: The young hottie

The three-on-three basketball tournament, held the last weekend of June, is in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s that big.

“In the last three years, we have grown about 300 teams each year,” said Rick Steltenpohl, executive director. “Last year, we were 6,990 teams. We think about 250,000 people show up between players and spectators.”

About half the teams are made up of players younger than 18.

Why so hot?

“It’s a great basketball tournament. That’s the foundation,” Steltenpohl said. “We built the event around (Riverfront) Park 22 years ago. It’s the lifeblood of Hoopfest. Music, food, you can win a car. It’s the place to see and be seen.

“We’re in a competitive time in our history. You see it in the job market. You see it trying to getting into colleges. In trying to get into sports teams.

“Hoopfest is a competitive weekend. It’s fun and festive, but when you’re in one of those 14,000 games, it’s very competitive. Your juices are flowing.”

Sometimes the juice spills in ways it shouldn’t.

Fights sometimes break out at games. Last year, shots were fired when gangland culture intersected with the event. But the 2010 out-of-the-ordinary negatives didn’t hurt the event.

“We’ve had great sponsors, even in this down economy,” Steltenpohl said.

The Lilac Festival and Bloomsday paved the way for Hoopfest, he said.

“There was a spirit that Spokane does public, participatory events. We do a parade. We do Bloomsday. The mindset helped us,” Steltenpohl said.

And that mindset has long-term – and long-range – implications for Spokane and the Inland Northwest.

“It exposes our community to people from the outside,” said EWU’s Jones, whose institute oversees the Community Indicators Initiative, which measures community vitality.

“It helps put this community on the map as a community that pulls these things off. It’s one thing to do a World’s Fair – and that was very important – but these happen every year.”

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