After 35 years, Musikfest’s free concerts generate big economic impact

A band performs at Familien Platz in 1984, showing that the size, scope and fashions of Musikfest have all changed a great deal since its inaugural year. (Photo courtesy of Musikfest)

This year marks a milestone for Musikfest. The music and arts festival that spreads across Bethlehem during early August is celebrating its 35th year.

Much has changed since the first polka rolled out the barrels in 1984, but some things have stayed very much the same, said Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, the nonprofit that runs the arts festival.

“When Musikfest started in 1984, it had the same goals that we have today – to spur economic development and support the arts,” Hilgert said.

What have changed are the size and scope of the festival. While the nonprofit has no figures on the economic impact the festival had on the region in its first few years, today Musikfest brings in millions of dollars to support jobs in the arts and the local economy as it’s grown organically over the years.

Starting out as a festival that spanned and surrounded Bethlehem’s north side, Musikfest expanded to include the south side in 2011, when it incorporated its newly built SteelStacks campus into its offerings.

But much of that growth has been gradual, adding attractions and ideas and bringing the world to the Lehigh Valley.

Today, Musikfest estimates that it adds about $73 million to the region’s economy each year, about half of the entire $147 million that Hilgert said ArtsQuest generates through all of its festivals and activities each year.

Hilgert said the economic impact of the 10-day festival (if you include preview night) goes far beyond hotel stays and restaurant stops that most people assume – although she said it’s prime season for those in the hospitality industry in and around Bethlehem.

“It’s also the the electricians and other support that set everything up and keep it running,” she said.

She said even such background staples such as renting tables and chairs and portable toilets – that visitors depend on, but may not think about – are ways the festival injects money into the local economy.

She also noted there are 40 food vendors setting up 60 food stands that she describes as little mini-businesses that operate through Musikfest’s run. Many of them such as Take a Taco and Aw Schucks Roasted Corn are local.

The festival also is a way for independent entrepreneurs who drive for services such as Lyft and Uber to earn extra cash by picking up and dropping off festival guests.

Corporations from around the region are a big part of the economic picture of Musikfest. Corporations provide a great deal of the money that helps keep the festival running through donations and sponsorships.

Flags of corporate sponsors of stages and venues can be seen throughout the festival. Some also have giveaways, educational displays or demonstrations.

Hilgert said it’s a great way to advertise. “It’s our own local Super Bowl, if you will,” she said.

And she called it a good investment for sponsors.

“You get in front of thousands of people every day,” Hilgert said. “It’s great to be on-site for 10 days and interact with all the attendees.”

Musikfest runs Aug. 3 through Aug. 12 in Bethlehem, with a preview night Aug. 2.


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