Winter Blast aims to help Flint while having fun

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Free ice skating and a giant snow slide will return to Campus Martius for the 2016 Meridian Winter Blast, but this year the cold-weather festivities stand to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the suffering city of Flint.

Because Winter Blast is the first major Detroit event to occur since the full magnitude of Flint’s water crisis came to light, event producer Jon Witz says using the festival to generate aid for Flint was an obvious decision. As in past years, attendees will pay admission for the event by making a donation to Matrix Human Services, a nonprofit serving Detroit’s poor. But festival goers will also be encouraged to donate to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s Child Health and Development Fund in a campaign dubbed “Sing, Skate and Slide for Flint.”

“We’re looking for people to pitch in $1 here, $2 there,” Witz says. “We’re not asking people to dig deep, but just to send a message that there is support in Detroit. It’s a public festival and it’s an opportunity to get the word out and make a small difference.”

Winter Blast sponsors will match attendees’ donations in varying ways. Sponsor Talmer Bank will give $1 to the CFGF for each person who rides Winter Blast’s 30-foot snow slide, while Meridian Health Plan will match all funds raised for the CFGF at Winter Blast up to $40,000.

“Meridian strives to make every life we touch healthier, so supporting the children of the city of Flint is a natural decision for us,” says Jon Cotton, president and COO of Meridian Health Plan.

Witz says he hopes to present an $80,000-$100,000 check to the CFGF at the end of the event. Winter Blast’s commitment to the city may continue into next year’s event as well.

“It’s a problem for life for [Flint] kids,” Witz says. “We definitely want to be a platform to keep the message going.”

Rocking for Flint

Although Winter Blast now stands to raise a considerable amount of money for Flint, Witz’s original idea to support the city was much more modest. Last month, Witz reached out to the 45 bands scheduled to play Winter Blast, asking them to donate 10 percent of their fee to the CFGF and to dedicate the first and last songs of their sets to the children of Flint.

“Musicians really are the least of many people who can afford to contribute out of their paycheck sometimes,” he says. “But they were the ones who started this. Unanimously, every band we contacted wanted to do this.”

Troy singer-songwriter Mia Green, 18, took the effort a step further. For Winter Blast she penned a new song dedicated to the children of Flint, titled “Invincible.”

“When you’re a kid, you feel like you can do anything,” Green says. “You’re told you can be whatever you want to be and you just have this feeling of invincibility. When something like this happens and these kids are forced to face reality so quickly, it just touched my heart and I felt like writing a song about being robbed of that invincibility feeling so young.”

One of this year’s bands, the Tom Toms, actually hails from Flint. Vocalist Kayla Day says it’s been “tough” to see how the water crisis has affected her city. But she’s encouraged by the outreach Flint has seen, including Winter Blast’s fundraising effort.

“It’s awesome that all the bands agreed to it and decided to donate,” Day says. “I think it shows just how powerful music can be when we all come together.”

Sled dogs and Detroit eats

In addition to fundraising for Flint, this year’s Winter Blast will see a couple of new attractions. Dog-sledding exhibitions are featured annually, but this year families will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the mushing canines. Au Gres resident Jill Miller owns five of the Siberian huskies in the Sunrise Side Snow Dogs, one of two sled-dog teams that will be available for “meet-and-greets” with Winter Blast attendees.

“Some people have their [sled] dogs and they’re just athletic,” Miller says. “Ours are actually family pets. They grew up in our house with our children, so they’re used to people just like any other family pet.”

Attendees may also notice a marked improvement in the edible offerings at this year’s Winter Blast. In past years the festival’s food vendors have included chains like Bagger Dave’s and Bear Claw Coffee, but this year’s event will feature a “Taste of Detroit” tent housing favorite local restaurants including La Dolce Vita, Slows To Go and (revolver). Witz says the restaurants were selected to represent Detroit’s flourishing food scene. That’s in keeping with his vision of Winter Blast as a way to “showcase” new developments in Detroit to the 75,000 people who attend annually.

“Each year you come down to the festival you see a new business open or something exciting happen, and of course that’s accelerated over the last few years,” Witz says.

Witz produced the first Winter Blast in 2005 as a trial run. The festival was originally conceived as a supplement to the Detroit-hosted Super Bowl XL in 2006. Ten years on from the Super Bowl, Witz says it’s still “thrilling” to be part of one of the “true legacies” of that event.

“It’s the ’60s in me,” he says. “Bringing people together in fun and peace, that’s probably the most fun of all.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Meridian Winter Blast

11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Campus Martius Park

1 Campus Martius, Detroit

Admission: donation of three canned food items, one children’s book or $2 to Matrix Human Services

(313) 963-8418

winterblast.com