SOUTH PORTLAND — Some residents of the city’s Willard Square area are hoping to boost their neighborhood after a hectic, and sometimes divisive, spring.

They are organizing a first-of-its-kind celebration for the neighborhood, dubbed “WillardFest,” to take place July 16.

“We thought Willard Square could use a little positive reinforcement,” said Wynne Wirth, who moved to Willard about three years ago.

Wirth said the Willard Square neighborhood has seemed more lively recently, with the reopening of Bathras Market in May and the contentious debate over a building moratorium that eventually sent two would-be business owners off to Knightville last month.

“There’s more energy and more conversations going on on the sidewalks,” Wirth said. “This is a way to say, ‘Let’s celebrate together.'”

Wirth hosted a block party last year with people who lived near her house at the corner of Vincent and Chase streets. She knocked on doors and sent postcard invitations, inviting neighbors to a barbecue get-together.

She said the block party was a huge success, and that one night in May, while walking along the South Portland Greenbelt Trail, she had an idea to host a similar event in Willard Square.

But as Wirth and the rest of the WillardFest Committee planned, it became clear that the celebration would be much bigger than the little get-together at her home.

“It started out as just a block party, where everyone would have fun,” Wirth said. “But it just grew and grew over the weeks. And now it’s a full-blown festival.”

Organizing alongside Wirth is Sharon Herrick, another recent addition to the neighborhood.

Herrick said the event has grown because of the process necessary to bring WillardFest to fruition – specifically the process of getting neighbors to approve the event. She and Wirth knocked on doors of residents within 500 feet of Willard Square, part of the process for getting an entertainment permit from the city.

Herrick said as more people found out, the excitement grew and the event changed from a small block party to a full-out festival with bands, children’s activities and food.

“It’s really a testament to the desire and need that people feel to get together and celebrate,” Herrick said.

Herrick said the festival is about looking ahead, and moving past the moratorium debate.

“We’re bringing people together for an event that’s really about celebration because there’s been some divisiveness,” Herrick said. “We think it’s important to bring people together as a community to support each other, even amidst difference of opinion.”

One of the buildings within the 500-foot radius is 7 Pillsbury St., owned by Glenn Perry, half of the duo that had intended to build a European-style market and cafe. The proposal spurred the moratorium movement.

But rather than spurn the neighborhood that fought him, Perry supports WillardFest.

“Working with (Perry) has been a very positive experience,” Herrick said. “My hope is for it to create some healing, individually and collectively.”

Perry has opened up the lawn at 7 Pillsbury for Herrick’s “wishing wall,” a collaborative art installation of fabric and rope, where people will be able to write their wishes, hopes and dreams for Willard Square. Perry, who lives in Portland, also said he’ll serve drinks to the event’s volunteers from the property’s garage.

Perry said that while at first glance his support may be a surprise, supporting community and togetherness in Willard was always his plan with his business proposal.

“The crazed, money-grubbing developers we were portrayed as by a minority of people who don’t know us is not who we are,” Perry said. “I like doing things like (WillardFest). That’s who I am. This is in line with what we always wanted to do.”

And though he supports WillardFest, Perry is unsure whether he’ll really mix it up with residents.

“I think I’ll be there, but I’m weighing it because it’s obviously much more difficult for some people than for me,” Perry said. “I was taught that a gentlemen should try not to make people uncomfortable. So I may not go. I don’t want to intrude on people’s celebration.”

Either way, the festival is poised to become an annual event. Wirth and Herrick both said that after having one WillardFest under their belts, they’ll be better equipped to organize and plan for next year.

“The secret’s been let out what a great neighborhood this is,” Herrick said.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

If you go to WillardFest …

• WillardFest will take place Saturday, July 16, from 3-7 p.m. at Willard Square, the intersection of Pillsbury, Preble and Thompson streets in South Portland.

• Music will be performed by local acts Welterweight and Papadello, as well as Britta Pejic.

• Children’s activities will include Hula Hoops, face painting, chalk art and other creative endeavors.

• Organizers said Scratch Bakery, Bathras Market and Willard Scoops will all have food on sale, and plans are in the works for a program to allow residents to share their favorite Willard Square memories.

• Sharon Herrick is putting together a “wishing wall,” where residents will be invited to share their hopes and dreams for Willard Square in a piece of collaborative art.

• In the event of rain, the event will be held at the same time on Sunday, July 17.

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