TRAVERSE CITY — Trevor Tkach watched scores of events come and go at the National Cherry Festival since he was tabbed to be an elementary school festival prince in 1984.
Today he’s the festival’s executive director, and he predicts many more to come.
But festival officials won’t be ridding themselves of pie-eating and cherry pit-spitting contests.
Those festival stalwarts are off-limits to change, said Tkach, in response to recent comments from Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes, who broadly suggested the festival is in need of a facelift.
Estes said the festival needs to be more event-driven — similar to the Traverse City Film Festival -- and questioned whether pit-spitting, pie-eating and the carnival midway should stick around.
“A lot of this stuff, I think the public is getting tired of it,” Estes said.
But Tkach said pit-spitting and pie-eating continue to draw large numbers of participants, as does the midway. Video of pie-eating contests attract national television exposure almost every year.
Estes’ comments apparently stung like a glove slap -- a gentle slap, perhaps -- across Tkach’s face, based on his response.
“I challenge Mayor Estes to a pie-eating, pit-spitting contest any day of the week,” Tkach said. “He needs to come down and have some fun with me.”
About 85 percent of the events put on by the Cherry Festival are free, and by design, Tkach said. The festival promotes both the cherry industry and the overall community as a tourist destination. Plenty of grousing from locals seems to precede the festival every year, but the event garners great local participation and the support of more than 2,000 community volunteers.
“This is an awesome festival, one of the largest in the nation and we need to be proud of that,’ Tkach said.
Tkach said he agrees with Estes’ overall point about the festival needing to evolve and adapt to changing public tastes. Festivals that do so won’t die, he said.
“The festival isn’t for everyone, and it means something different for everybody,” Tkach said. “But we’ve worked hard to include events that can appeal to different people.”
This year the festival will institute some more history with a display of the miniature city that had a home in Clinch Park from 1931 to 1973. It also will return with Cherries D’Vine after a short hiatus that will pair local beers, wines, and spirits with cherry-infused cuisine created by local chefs.
But the addition of a night air show to the festival in place of a second show on Sunday might qualify as this year’s greatest change.
“I’ve never seen a night-time air show, so I’m excited to see it, but it will probably be a one-time thing,” Tkach said.
This year’s air shows won’t have any military aircraft -- all such aircraft are grounded by the federal budget sequester. Even Air Station Traverse City of the U.S. Coast Guard can’t participate. But the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are scheduled to return in 2014, and barring changes the festival will return to its two-day format with military aircraft, Tkach said.
Small items are altered every year at the festival, but one longer-range goal is to increase the festival’s emphasis on health and wellness, Tkach said.
The festival has one of the longest-running foot races in Michigan, and this year will add more healthy eating demonstrations, as well as television star Carter Oosterhouse’s fun run and walk to promote activities that reduce childhood obesity.
“But that doesn’t mean we are getting rid of Gibby’s fries and ice cream,” Tkach said. “Everything in moderation.”