Person of the Week
Planning for a Fun POCO Festival
From learning to call it “POCO” like a local, to bringing her years of experience planning events for companies including Disney and ESPN, North Branford’s new Potato and Corn Festival (POCO) coordinator Gayle McMillan and her valued team of volunteers are ready to wow the crowds with new excitement and favorite staples at the 18th annual POCO Festival coming to Augur’s Field from Friday to Sunday, Aug. 2 to 4. Photo by (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
With upgrades including a new amusement company bringing in more midway thrills for ‘tweens, the first-ever addition of circus acts, a new pyrotechnics group sparking the Saturday night fireworks, and more community tent programming in the mix, Gayle McMillan is planning for a fun Potato and Corn (POCO) Festival from Friday, Aug. 2 to Sunday, Aug. 4 at Augur’s Field in North Branford.
Gayle signed on as the town of North Branford’s new POCO Festival coordinator in April. The Milford resident is very excited to be taking the helm as the fest enters its 18th year. From learning to call it “POCO” like a local to bringing her years of experience planning events for companies including Disney and ESPN, Gayle and her valued team of volunteers are ready to wow the thousands expected to join the crowd at POCO this year.
It’s been a quick learning curve for Gayle, who says she’s grateful to have a strong core of volunteer leadership and the good planning of the Parks & Recreation Department, including the work of past POCO coordinator Jenn McCulloch, in her corner.
“I’ve heard it went from a one-table festival to fields of festival,” says Gayle, who will also be experiencing POCO firsthand for the first time this year.
“I’m still learning, but as I look at it, it’s is a fun event that should be fun, so if anything comes up, you just deal with it and move forward,” says Gayle. “It’s been great working with the volunteers. They’ve been very helpful in educating me, and Parks and Rec has been extremely helpful. They’re very organized. The outgoing coordinator had templates of everything, so it was very easy to pick it up from there.”
That being said, coming from her background in events and marketing, Gayle has plenty of experience to not only take on POCO, but to make it even better going forward.
“I’ve done small events for non-profits, and I used to work with Disney and ESPN, so I have done national events with McDonalds or SiriusXM Radio or a with a lot of our cable partners,” says Gayle. “I’m used to doing five or six of these at once! So I enjoy this.”
Married and a mother of two, Gayle says she feels lucky to have found the opportunity to work in her field part-time as POCO coordinator with a great, community-based program.
“It’s a nice community feel, which I want to show my kids—they’re 11 and 12—that it’s not about them; it’s about helping others and doing what we can in the community. And although I’m not from the community, they’ve welcomed me. It’s been great,” says Gayle.
Adding to the community festivities this year will be more action in POCO’s community tent, which is getting more use on Friday and Saturday due to new programming. On Friday, the tent will host Non-Profit Night. On Saturday, Aug. 3, it will feature Kid Crafters, and Friday through Sunday, it will host a photography exhibit. Then, on Sunday, for the second year in a row, the tent will be transformed into POCO’s Beer & Wine Garden.
“For Non-Profit Night, local non-profits can sign up [in advance], and they’ll get an eight-foot table to distribute information about their organization on Friday night,” says Gayle. “And on Saturday, it’s Kid Crafters, which is going to be a lot of fun.”
POCO has invited kid crafters, who get an eight-foot table to sell their crafts under the tent.
“We don’t ask for any proceeds other than the $25 fee for the table. We’re still looking for more kids [under 21 with adult supervision],” she says. “They don’t have to be an expert at it; they just have to enjoy doing it. They’ll get to meet people and make a few dollars.
“And then we have our photography exhibit in the tent the whole weekend as well. We’re also still looking for people to exhibit their drawings and paintings,” she says. “It’s great place to expose their work.”
Gayle notes POCO also couldn’t go on without the many sponsors who provide in-kind services, goods, and materials to help put on POCO, as well as those companies and groups pitching in as monetary sponsors. She sends a special shout-out to Augur Farm, Cecarelli Farm, and DeFrancesco & Son Farm for providing POCO’s fresh corn—one of the food tent’s top sellers.
Another top seller is, of course, POCO’s baked potatoes. Like POCO’s roasted corn, POCO’s baked potatoes (and all the toppings) come together with the work of volunteers who staff the fest’s most popular food tent. And don’t forget the seniors who wrap every potato in foil in advance of POCO each year, too.
“It’s really an all-volunteer-based event,” says Gayle of POCO. “We’re lucky to have our core volunteers who come back every single year, and I’m learning a lot from them.”
One thing she’s learned is that more volunteers are always welcome, she adds.
“We’re still looking for more volunteers to help out in the midst of the festival,” she says of the call for helpers. “We have two volunteer coordinators and they set up where the kids and adults will go.”
For Gayle, one of the biggest and best elements of POCO is that, as always, admission is free.
“And not only is it free entry; if you’re okay with taking the shuttle, it’s free parking, too,” Gayle points out.
Free shuttles run from lots at North Branford Auditorium and Stanley T. Williams Community Center. POCO also offers $10 on-site general and handicapped parking and $20 premiere on-site parking. On Sunday, parking is free with North Branford ID.
“And on Sunday, if you bring proof of your North Branford residency, residents can buy an all-day midway rides wrist band for just $20,” normally $30, says Gayle.
A multiday wristband will also be available for $50. Credit cards are accepted at the amusement booth.
“We do have a new amusement company. Fiesta Shows will be starting this year,” adds Gayle. “We’ll still have things like the traditional merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and bumper cars, but we do have more rides this year that are geared toward ‘tweens. I know that last year there was an ask and a greater need for the ‘tween thrill-seeker rides, so we have that coming this year.”
Over three days, POCO also puts on no fewer than 22 free family-friendly contests and games, from corn husking and pie eating contests to potato sack races and mashed potato toss.
Speaking of freebies, “we also have the Regional Water Authority bringing in their water truck to provide [free] re-fills of water bottles,” says Gayle, adding, “all of the musical entertainment is free. We’ll also have the free performances by the Kent Family Magic Circus: ‘Vaudepalooza,’ and they’ll have strolling acts, like jugglers, between shows, which I’m really excited about.”
Musical entertainment includes Friday night’s line up of country jam band Jackson Hill of Durham and Americana band Cinnamon Sky of Southbury. Saturday’s show kicks off with Talent America/Vocal Productions at 12:30 p.m. followed by the ever-popular sounds of Sin Sisters (swing, Motown, classic rock, and Top 40) at 3 p.m., then fusion band Mass Conn-Fusion (5 p.m.) and classic rockers Last Licks at 7 p.m. Sunday’s shows include the Americana quartet Horizon Blue Band at 11 a.m., followed by modern country/alternative/blues and rock from JC (John Carter) Hill from noon to 2 p.m. Other performers feathered in at POCO include Bernadettes (R&B, soul, and dance) and Americana duo Amber Anchor.
POCO’s annual Talent Showcase takes the stage from 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4 with a special, community-driven feature this year, notes Gayle.
“We’re going to highlight the North Branford Police Department’s Lip Sync crew video, and we’ll have live, online voting available so you can cast your vote right there,” she says.
The votes are hoped to help get the department’s video into the top-10 round of the CBS Lip Sync to the Rescue TV competition this fall. On-the-spot voting at POCO on Aug. 4 is being coordinated courtesy of Verizon.
POCO takes the fields at Augur Farm, 290 Forest Road, beginning Friday, Aug. 2 from 5 to 11 p.m. and continuing Saturday, Aug. 3 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday Aug. 4 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Gayle will be there all three days, ready to pitch in wherever she’s needed, she says.
“I’m going to have a back-pack, a walkie-talkie and a bottle of water,” she says, grinning. “And day-to-day, I’ll go where I’m needed. If they need me to work the cooker, I’ll work the cooker. If they need me to deliver ice, I’ll deliver ice. I’ve done a lot of these in the past, so I know what to expect—and not to expect everything to be perfect! As long as we have fun, it’s a success.”
For more information, visit www.nbpotatofest.com or find North Branford Potato and Corn Festival on Facebook. Look for the official 2019 POCO program book coming in The Sound on Thursday, July 25.