NEW ALBANY — For the past few years, Jeff Cummins and a few of his buddies have met the Wednesday before Harvest Homecoming booth days to go over festival logistics.
But it turns out to be much more than that. For Cummins, it’s the start of a five-day race that ends late Sunday afternoon.
“That is when it hits you,” he said.
This year, Cummins, 46, is president of that race known as the Harvest Homecoming Festival. He has been a volunteer for more than a decade and for the next two years, he will be the face of one of Indiana’s biggest festivals. He said after almost a year of planning, everything is coming together for the 47th annual event.
“I see myself in a leadership role; I kind of fill in the gaps,” he said. “They [festival directors, volunteers] all know what needs to be done. Once the festival gets going, I am more of a figurehead role. I am more of a behind-the-scenes guy, but I am not afraid to be out front.”
The festival officially kicked-off earlier this month at the Harvest Homecoming Scholarship Pageant, where Cummins unveiled this year’s theme, “Harvest of Honor,” and pin design. He said he wanted to honor all those men in women who wear the uniform and all first-responders.
“We have never really done anything like that before,” he said.
All the favorite events return this year. The parade will be Oct. 4 and booth days will run from Oct. 9-12. Cummins said he expects the 2014 version of the festival to be better than ever, he just hopes Mother Nature cooperates with great weather like 2013.
“Last year was just one of those years where everything clicked,” he said. “The weather was great, unlike the year before when we had to close on Sunday because of the severe weather threat. At the end of the day, there is nothing you can do but cross your fingers.
“Last year, there was a deluge of rain during the parade and when we turned down Spring from Vincennes, there were lots of people who were out, lining the street, drenched like we were. They were out there because it was the parade.”
New to the festival this year will be the pumpkin chucking contest and Purdue University is now a platinum sponsor of the festival.
Micah Arnold, who served as president of the festival in 2012 and 2013, said Cummins will “do a great job.”
“Jeff has been on top of everything and is very thorough,” Arnold said.
Cummins said two areas he wants to improve on as president is the relationship with some of the downtown merchants who have voiced concerns about how booth days hurts their business. He also wants to recruit more volunteers, and try to get more youth involved in the festival.
“I want to try and get downtown merchants to understand what the festival is all about. It’s not just four days of booths, it’s about allowing nonprofits and churches who get to set up booths and for many, make their budgets for the year,” he said. “It’s about the college scholarships, all the free kids events. Some don’t understand, but many do.
“The Harvest Homecoming Festival is not just booths — it’s about giving back and giving New Albany the opportunity to show off a little. If they [visitors] don’t visit a business during the festival, there is a good chance they will come back.”
Cummins said there are probably about 750 volunteers who help out in an area of the festival. Some, obviously, are more involved than others.
“None of us get paid. We do it because we are passionate about doing it,” he said. “Our volunteers do a tremendous job. We have a lot of families involved and what we are trying to do is get more people involved. That was one of my jobs, volunteerism. There was a time when we had more people going out because of age or they had done it for years than we had coming in.”
Arnold said the festival would be “impossible” to put on without the help of the vice presidents, directors and others who work all year to help organize the events. He also said it’s important to get new blood into the organization.
“It’s nice to have the older volunteers and their experience, but the young people have some fresh ideas and that helps a lot,” Arnold said.
Cummins said the festival is healthy and is more popular than ever. He said there is a waiting list for booths and people still “really look forward” to the festival each year. He said all systems are go.
“There always seems to be certain things that go down to the end, but it always seems to come together,” he said. “ You are excited, but you always wonder is there something I missed?”