Every Year, Waking Windows Festival Doubles the Population of a Tiny Vermont Town

do not reuse
Bryan Lasky
Waking Windows 2019

The event every May gives Winooski's local economy a major boost, thanks to acts like Tune-Yards, Twin Peaks and Sunflower Bean.

Every year for the past nine years, the 7,327-person population of Winooski, Vermont, has nearly doubled during the first weekend in May as Waking Windows music, arts and comedy festival takes place. Formerly a traveling festival that took place semi-regularly in Portland, Maine, (and spent one summer in Detroit) the event annually brings in 6,000 festivalgoers, as well as a major economic boost, to the town. This year, from May 3-5, the indie-leaning lineup featured local bands and headliners Tune-YardsTwin Peaks and Sunflower Bean

Waking Windows co-owner Ali Nagle got involved with the festival somewhat by accident: She developed a crush at local coffeeshop The Monkey House, where she is also currently the manager. "I started being a patron because my now-husband [Brian Nagle], who is also an owner of Waking Windows, started DJing there, so I was going all the time," she tells Billboard. "Eventually, the manager said, 'Do you want to work here so you can have a discount because you're here all the time?'"

The Monkey House was also a launching pad for talent bookers and Waking Windows co-founders Paddy ReaganNick Mavadones, who also booked shows at Detroit's El Club venue and established booking agency Angioplasty Media, and Matt Rogers, who also organizes concerts at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live. "We call the festival a full-time hobby because we all have full-time jobs," jokes Nagle. "Hopefully, one day, one of us will be able to full-time focus on the festival, but that hasn't happened quite yet." 

When they launched Waking Windows in 2011, none of the team members anticipated that their venture would become an integral part of Winooski's revitalization. In 2004, Winooski residents took out a $24 million municipal bond to rebuild their downtown, which had been demolished during the city’s urban renewal movement of the 1970s. Local retailers, restaurants and bars lost foot traffic on account of the construction downtown, so there were plenty of commercial vacancies -- but also opportunities.

“When we first started the festival, we put music into some of the vacant business spaces,” says Nagle. Soon enough, shop-owners set up on a permanent basis in those same storefronts, continuing to host sets as they watched festivalgoers become customers. “[Our downtown] exploded simultaneously with the festival,” Nagle adds. “We rely on them just as much as they rely on us.” Parking and public transportation infrastructure also grew in tandem with the festival crowds, which Nagle estimates have doubled year-on-year. 

The proof of this building boom's financial impact on Winooski is in the receipts, according to Heather Carrington, the city's community and economic development officer. Carrington does not have access to individual sales but she analysed aggregated food and alcohol receipts during the months of May and June between 2005 (about five years before the festival began in 2011) and the present. When Carrington crunched the numbers, she found a 6% increase in meal receipts and a 15% increase in alcohol receipts during the month of May, from 2012 and beyond, both likely attributable to Waking Windows. "Based on this analysis, the total impact since the inception of Waking Windows is $698,205 in additional May Winooski meal and alcohol receipts," she explained in an email to Billlboard

Anecdotally, Carrington adds, 100% of Winooski businesses surveyed saw a sales bump during that weekend roughly equivalent to that of a month’s worth of sales. “That certainly has the potential to float a business through a rough patch,” she says. 

Jeff Baron is part of the Essex Green, an indie pop-folk band signed to Merge Records that released a number of albums in the early 2000s, took a hiatus, and returned last year with the album Hardly Electronic. After they began in Burlington, Vermont, the trio moved to Brooklyn for a number of years before deciding to return to their home state. The Essex Green has performed at Waking Windows every year since 2014. "[Winooski] doesn't have the same sleepy Vermont hippie vibe that it did when I came here in the early '90s," he tells Billboard. "It's changed. I feel like there's a fresh scene that's stirring in Burlington, and a lot of those younger, newer bands are on the lineup."

The festival's benefits to the Winooski region aren't just economic. Nagle emphasizes that Waking Windows also highlights the Burlington-adjacent city’s quirky appeal to tourists passing through with on-site activities at the festival including a drag-queen story hour, a feminist bird walk and screenings in partnership with the Vermont Film Festival. Patrons of particular businesses during the festival weekend will often become "repeat customers" during off-season periods, according to Winooski city manager Jessie Baker. She adds that the festival also provides a workable model for other local events in the downtown area. "There's a Winooski Wednesday music series, a Festival of Pumpkins in the fall and other kinds of events that have spun off from Waking Windows' success," she tells Billboard. "Winooski is branded as 'Opportunity City' and Waking Windows is a critical partner in recognizing that brand."