TRAVERSE CITY -- Economic survival over the long winter is no laughing matter for northern Michigan businesses, but many found something to smile about this month.
Downtown merchants reported a solid business boost over the weekend, thanks in part to the inaugural Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival. Coupled with the third annual Winter Wonderfest over the extended Presidents Day weekend a week earlier, the events generated a significant bump in visitor numbers during a traditionally slow time.
"It was crazy," said Kathleen Stanley, a manager at Mackinaw Brewing Co. in downtown Traverse City. "The (comedy festival) weekend was crazy, and the Winterfest was crazy too."
Restaurant owner Phil Murray said the comedy festival "exceeded my expectations" as the business packed in patrons well past midnight on both weekend nights.
"It was wonderful -- a great time," said Murray, owner of Phil's on Front. "The place was packed at 2 o'clock in the morning."
Retailer Misha Neidorfler of Morsels downtown said the festival created a buzz in her bite-sized bakery shop. Comedy festival headliner Roseanne Barr stopped in Saturday afternoon to try a "Roseanne Bar" created for the weekend -- a Rice Krispies treat drizzled in chocolate and marshmallow sauce.
"I gave her one, she ate it and said, 'It's good,'" Neidorfler said. "It was pretty cool."
The festival generated about 12,000 admissions, and exceeded the original target of 8,000 tickets sold, said Deb Lake, executive director of the Traverse City Film Festival. Organizers added some additional shows that boosted attendance figures, and most venues were full or near capacity, a fact that pleased performers, Lake said.
"We know we broke even," said Lake, acknowledging the festival benefitted from mild weekend weather conditions that featured sunshine on Saturday and temperatures near 40 degrees. "It's possible we may have generated a little bit of revenue."
Lake also said performers spoke highly of the event, ranging from their treatment by festival volunteers to audience responses.
"They were all overwhelmingly thrilled with the reception they received here," Lake said. "That made us feel really good."
And business people across the downtown reported plenty of spin-off activity.
"We actually sold out this weekend," said Amy Parker, general manager of the Park Place Hotel in downtown Traverse City. The hotel was booked Saturday night and took in more dining sales, which she attributed to festival patrons and performers.
"We saw an increase in revenue in both food and beverage," Parker said. "People were in good spirits, people were happy, so that was a plus."
It was also a big weekend at Right Brain Brewery in downtown's Warehouse District.
"Both Friday and Saturday were busier than normal," Right Brain employee Bronwen Heath said. "I would say it increased our sales for the weekend."
City officials said they're still gathering responses from the downtown business community about both the comedy festival and Wonderfest. But both weekends generated some welcome commerce in the off-season.
"In the middle of winter, anything we can do to get people downtown is great," said Rob Bacigalupi, executive director of the city's Downtown Development Authority. "The folks I heard from were very excited."