BIDDEFORD – The 30th annual La Kermesse festival is returning to its roots with a renewed focus on celebrating Biddeford’s rich cultural heritage.

The festival celebrates the Franco-American culture of a city whose downtown is dominated by the mills that attracted generations of workers from Canada and elsewhere. This year, the festival is expanding to include other cultures and local groups, in an attempt to boost attendance and incorporate new ideas.

The festival has struggled in recent years in the wake of an embezzlement and the loss of its traditional venue at St. Louis Field, but organizers say confidence in the future of the festival is growing.

La Kermesse is scheduled to run Thursday through Sunday at Mechanics Park in downtown Biddeford. For the first time, it will include the Downtown Development Commission’s annual car show, a world music stage hosted by Heart of Biddeford, children’s activities at the Chamber of Commerce in Saco, and Biddeford Heritage Days on the Pepperell Mill Campus.

Volunteers began setting up the festival last week. Water Street will be closed to traffic between Pike and Sullivan streets through Friday.

Jessica Quattrone, president of La Kermesse, hopes the additions will draw more people to the festival, which will include a parade from Biddeford to Saco and fireworks over the Saco River.

The festival has not been held at St. Louis Field since 2009, when rain and trucks caused extensive damage to the city-owned field. In 2010, the festival was held at the Biddeford Ice Arena and drew only about 2,000 people.

La Kermesse was held downtown last year. About 3,000 people attended, with about 20,000 turning out for the fireworks, Quattrone said.

In its heyday, La Kermesse drew as many as 25,000 people and cost $220,000 to put on. Organizers will spend $65,000 this year, through sponsorships and ticket sales.

Organizers want to make the entire festival free next year.

Festival organizers hope attendance will keep growing as people get used to the downtown location and a more intimate festival, Quattrone said. She said some people are beginning to let go of the negative feelings about the festival that came from the embezzlement by former festival President Priscille Gagnon.

Organizers have spent the last two years focusing on rebuilding the festival. Quattrone said she has heard negative comments in the past, but people now seem to respond well to the festival because the focus is more on music and food and less on a carnival-like atmosphere.

Incorporating other cultures into the festival is consistent with its founder’s vision for La Kermesse, Quattrone said.

When Joseph Plamondon founded it in 1982, he envisioned a festival that would recognize the Franco-American community and the other ethnic groups with a 10-day event that focused on a different culture each day.

Delilah Poupore, director of Heart of Biddeford, said organizers want to “get the whole city behind the festival.”

The world stage will feature free music and dance performances by a variety of cultural groups on a stage at 100 Main St.

Lauren Cote, field vendor manager, said La Kermesse will include 20 food booths and 30 vendors of crafts and other products. The food will range from traditional Franco-American favorites like pork pie and poutine to Thai food and traditional fair favorites.

The main festival tent will be behind the gazebo, near the banks of the Saco River, said festival Vice President Raymond Gagne.

Two Franco-American music acts were added to the lineup.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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