South Lyon Pumpkinfest draws crowds, serves nonprofits

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

The 30th annual South Lyon Pumpkinfest will kick off autumn with a grand opening ceremony at 6 p.m. on Friday. Presented this year by Vibe Credit Union, the festival will run through Sunday and offer a wide variety of entertainment for all ages to raise funds for local nonprofit organizations.

A 1980s theme will run through the weekend to celebrate the decade the festival was inaugurated. Two of Michigan's biggest '80s celebrities, former Miss America Kaye Lani Rae Rafko and former Tigers pitcher Milt Wilcox, will participate throughout the weekend.

Attractions will include live music on two stages, game and activity booths hosted by local nonprofit organizations, a scarecrow contest and a 5K run.

Entertainment booker Brian Major said one of festival's biggest sources of revenue, the beer tent, has been relocated this year to triple the amount of space for new attractions, including Wilcox's Ultimate Air Dogs (UAD).

UAD hosts popular canine dock jumping competitions around the country, and many winners have appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman."

Wilcox no longer resides in Michigan, and he said he said he looks forward to visiting his former home state and seeing old friends. The timing of his return couldn't be more perfect, since he pitched for the Tigers when they won the World Series in 1984, the same year Pumpkinfest made its debut.

Festival vice president Natalie K. White said she expects UAD to be this year's biggest draw because of its national reputation and, as she puts it, "Who doesn't love dogs?"

Despite headlining attractions like UAD and live performances by regional artists such as the Hamiltons and Social Bones, the local nonprofit-operated game booths are the backbone of the festival.

"The festival's main goal has always been to provide an avenue for local nonprofits to raise funds," White said.

Every cent raised from each game or activity goes directly to the organization the ticket was purchased from. Last year, 27 participating nonprofits raised more than $16,000. Since that number increased from $11,000 the last year and $8,000 in 2012, White said she expects the trend to continue.

Pumpkinfest secretary Troy Powe, who also provides inflatable rides for the festival, said he expects more than 50,000 visitors this year. With such high attendance, participating nonprofits can expect to make more at this one venue than they do all year, Powe said.

The festival hasn't always seen numbers like this. When it was started 30 years ago by the late Dean Sparks, Pumpkinfest was just a small arts and crafts fair. Each year it has grown exponentially as South Lyon itself has expanded.

"It was a sleepy little town," said Major. "But now it's the downtown to a lot of suburbs, like Canton, Northville, and Novi."

Major said that despite the festival's rapid growth, it is still a close-knit community event at heart.

"This is as authentic and real as a small town festival can get," Major said.

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

South Lyon Area Pumpkinfest

6-11 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

Intersection of Pontiac Trail and 10 Mile in downtown South Lyon

Free admission, prices for rides and games vary