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Hampdenfest organizer stepping down

HonFestBusiness EnterprisesMaryland Transit Administration

"I'm tired," said Hampdenfest organizer Charlotte Murray, slumped at the information booth at early afternoon Sept. 8.

Parked nearby on The Avenue, which was closed to motorists, was the blue tricycle she began using this year to save wear and tear on her legs as she cruised West 36th Street with a walkie-talkie, monitoring the festival and "putting out fires."

The latest fire Saturday afternoon was that only one of four scheduled volunteers had shown up.

Wearing a green T-shirt with the word "Ringmaster," the 40-year-old Govans resident has been volunteer coordinator of the popular festival for the past four years. But in an interview on the eve of the festival, she said this would be her last year as organizer.

She said she planned to announce her decision Sept. 12, at a meeting of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, which co-sponsors the festival.

Who will succeed Murray is still unclear, Murray and other community and business leaders said. Murray's departure leaves a leadership vacuum in the longtime festival, which is a magnet for the neighborhood and a business generator for merchants on The Avenue, a main commercial corridor in Hampden.

Murray volunteered in 2008, only because Benn Ray, president of the merchants' association, warned there wouldn't be a Hampdenfest, unless someone stepped up.

Murray ended up taking over for Rachel Whang, the previous organizer. Whang and Ray co-own Atomic Books near The Avenue.

Murray and other community and business leaders in Hampden say they don't yet have someone to replace her, but that several names are being kicked around.

And Ray said he is confident there won't be a repeat of 2008.

"There will be a Hampdenfest 2013," he said.

Hampdenfest plays a key role in the community. The 1-day festival, once known as the May Fair, has more of a low-key, neighborhood feeling than June's 2-day HonFest, which draws from around the region.

Some merchants complain that HonFest is useless to them, because the crowds are there for hon-watching and not to shop.

Ray said that although HonFest is bigger and more of a regional festival, Hampdenfest is better to promote the business community, especially with the holidays approaching.

"It's an introduction to the fall shopping season," Ray said. "It's a great way to introduce your business."

He said most merchants he has spoken with say their business at Hampdenfest, which is always held on a Saturday, doubles or triples when compared to other Saturdays during the year.

Anecdotally, "Hampdenfest is usually the equivalent of a Christmas season Saturday," Ray said.

Murray, who owns Charlotte Elliott, an antiques and rare books store on The Avenue, said planning starts as early as January, as an informal committee shares duties ranging from hiring overtime police to getting Baltimore City permits.

Whang does the website for the festival. Ray handles the media.

Genny Dill, Hampden Community Council secretary, pays bills, Murray said.

Murray deals with City Hall, because, "I think I've built up quite a good rapport with the city people."

They share a litany of other tasks - getting vendors, no parking signs and barricades "that (people) ignore anyway."

They need permits galore -one for the festival, one for live music, one to close The Avenue and another to hang banners over the street.

They must reroute Maryland Transit Administration buses for the day, too. One year, Murray forgot, and buses coming up Chestnut Avenue toward 36th Street were surprised to see toilet race contestants barreling toward them.

There are also portable restrooms to rent and liability insurance to buy, stages to get from the city and little ramps to find that go over cable wires near the stages so that people won't trip over the wires. There are T-shirts, posters, tents, tables and chairs to rent, too.

Last year, on Hampdenfest morning, the city-owned stages were stuck in the mud at Druid Hill Park from a prior event there, and didn't arrive on The Avenue until noon, Murray said.

And there are sponsorships to secure for an event that costs $15,000 each year.

M&T Bank is a longtime sponsor, as is Falkenhan's hardware store in Hampden and Rotunda mall owner Hekemian & Co., Murray said.

Murray tries to keep the festival's community vibe -down to the microbreweries that she taps as vendors for Hampdenfest, including Union Craft Brewery, a new business in Woodberry.

"We can always get larger corporate sponsors, but we prefer to keep it independent," Murray said.

"That's the shape of Hampden."

Now, Murray has had enough of organizing the fest.

"Four years is a good long stint," she said. She wants to expand her business and spend more time with her son, Drew, a fourth-grader at a school she would not name, and her husband, Jeffrey, who she said is now starting a business of his own involving tribal drums.

She said she will probably "shadow" whoever takes over as organizer.

"I'll foist it off on someone deserving," she said.

And she said what she would say the next day in the middle of Hampdenfest.

"I'm tired," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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