One of the summer’s hottest lakefront parties focuses on sustainability

Interviewed by Dennis Seeds | [email protected]

Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie may be the shallowest and smallest by volume, but the passion the people and organizations share along its borders for using and protecting it has no bounds.

aKJR_2879Look no further than the Burning River Foundation and its key fundraiser, the Burning River Fest. For two warm July days each summer, the fest takes over Wendy Park on the shores of the Cuyahoga River for fun and frivolity in the name of sustaining this important northern resource and its tributaries.

The foundation was formed in 2007, six years after Patrick Conway, co-founder of Great Lakes Brewing Co., joined forces with some like-minded individuals and created the popular Burning River Fest — a celebration of sustainability centered on the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, which many credit with sparking a national change to remedy pollution in U.S. waterways and prompted the Clean Water Act.

Awareness is a priority

Gretchen Faro, executive director of the Burning River Foundation, says a group including Conway and his supporters created the foundation using the net proceeds of the festival to fund grants for small organizations working on Greater Cleveland fresh water sustainability issues.

“It is about freshwater resources so our typical grantees are doing mostly educational-type work around freshwater sustainability, freshwater conservation and protection of the lake and the river,” Faro says. “But they’ve also supported journalists who were doing a series of articles on sustainability issues.”

What makes fresh water conservation and sustainability so important? Look at the statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: only 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water and the volume in the Great Lakes represents 18 percent of that.

More locally, by volume, 90 percent of the freshwater supply in the U.S. comes from the Great Lakes and accounts for the largest surface area of fresh water in the world.

Grantees for 2014 include the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District; 5 Gyres Institute; Alliance for the Great Lakes; Drink Local, Drink Tap; and the Cleveland Metroparks. All told, since 2007, the foundation has distributed more than $350,000.

The organizations do not necessarily have to be local, as is the case with 5 Gyres Institute — which focuses most of its work studying the five oceanic gyres — but the grant must be used locally. The research grant to 5 Gyres is in the final year of a three-year cycle studying plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Festival brings in funds

“Right now, the only source of grant money that we have is the annual festival. So obviously, there is a desire to continue growing that,” Faro said. “We think it accomplishes a number of things. First of all, it’s a whole lot of fun. It gets people down on the lakefront, and it offers a part of the lakefront a lot of people have never even had the opportunity to visit.”

So how do two days of live entertainment from an eclectic mix of musicians, exhibits, activities, food from local vendors and plenty of Great Lakes beverages (Christmas Ale makes an annual appearance) help the foundation?

The bulk of the revenue comes from food, sponsorships, ticket sales and the net proceeds from beer sales. With Conway’s connection, and his company’s well-known sustainability initiatives, it is no surprise that Great Lakes Brewing Co. is the presenting sponsor. Other major sponsors are PNC Bank, 106.5 The Lake, Omni Media, the Port of Cleveland, Riot Creative Imaging, Squire Sanders, WJW Fox 8 and ideastream.

Presale tickets for the event are on sale for $12 through July 20, and are available at After that, tickets are $15 online and at the event, which hits the shores of the Cuyahoga from 6 to 11 p.m. July 25 and 26. Children 12 and younger are free.

Time for a bigger agenda

“The foundation and the festival are really at a breakout point of having grown as much as they have in the last number of years. Now is the time to really push the big agenda and really break out of kind of the size that we are right now. There is so much energy in this region around these issues,” Faro says.

“I give the Conways and the Great Lakes Brewing Co. so much credit for just owning this mission,” she says. “That is probably the unique quality of the foundation. It is the only foundation in town whose sole focus is around sustainability and environmental protection with a focus on fresh water resources.

“Though this town has a lot of great philanthropic organizations, but we are the only one who is really focused on that.”

How to reach: Burning River Foundation and Burning River Fest,