SunFest maestro Paul Jamieson retiring after 33 years: 'It's time for the next leader’
ON A LATE APRIL evening in 1998, musician Jackson Browne was performing on the opening night of SunFest when the skies over downtown West Palm Beach opened up.
Torrential rains, propelled at times by 15 mph gusts, drove headliner Brown and his band off the stage a couple of times and sent most of the crowd, eager to hear hits like “Running on Empty,’’ running for cover.
Watching from the wings was Paul Jamieson, in his third year as SunFest’s executive director and within earshot of Brown and his band.
“His band was like, ‘We’re done. We’re not going back out there,’’’ Jamieson recalled. “And Jackson Browne said to his band, ‘I don’t care if it’s 10 people out there who came to see us play. We are waiting this rain out and we’re going back on stage.’’’
The show eventually went on, with Browne joking to his drenched but appreciative audience, “It's like singing in the shower!’’
As Jamieson prepares to retire after 33 years with SunFest, he looks back on Browne’s work ethic on that soggy Wednesday night in 1998 as so much more than just “a pretty cool memory.”
Browne's talking-to was aimed at his band, but it would guide Jamieson and his army of volunteers over the years through the endless challenges of putting on South Florida’s largest waterfront art and music festival.
“I've always tried to carry that spirit of what I heard him say that night,’’ Jamieson said.
“It doesn't matter if it is 10 people or if we have bad weather, I always say to my people, ‘Don’t worry about who’s not here. Put on the best show for who is here. That’s our responsibility.’ And I learned that listening to him that night.’’
Jamieson, SunFest’s executive director since 1996 and a SunFest employee since 1990, will officially retire on Sept. 30, a decision he said he made two years ago.
Replacing him is former SunFest sales and marketing executive Dianna Craven, who has already assumed the lead director duties as Jamieson stays for the next few months to guide the transition.
“Sometimes an organization just needs a new voice and I just decided it was that time,’’ he said. “There are no regrets.’’
Jamieson, 66, moved to Florida in 1986 from Chicago and, after working four years in Fort Lauderdale, joined SunFest as event manager in 1990, just seven years after the inaugural festival.
After replacing the late Sue Twyford as executive director in 1996, he helped turn what began as a small arts fair into a five-day festival drawing hundreds of thousands to the downtown waterfront.
While SunFest, like many festivals across the United States, has had its ups and downs over the years, it has fallen on especially hard times in recent years, no thanks to the pandemic.
SunFest lost more than $1 million on each of its last three festivals, wiping out all gains it had made since the mid-2000s, as the Palm Beach Post reported.
To stop the financial bleeding, the 2023 festival was reduced to three days and two favorite mainstays – the arts festival and fireworks show – were eliminated. At the same time, ticket prices were nearly doubled.
Attendance fell, which is not unexpected for a shorter festival. But fans had mixed reactions to the changes, both on social media and in SunFest’s usual post-festival survey.
Whether art and fireworks will return in May remains to be seen.
“It's been hard since the pandemic. It’s been difficult to find our footing. And we will find our footing,’’ Jamieson said. “It’s a group effort. I have every confidence in Dianna's ability to be one of the leaders of that effort.”
He said SunFest’s recent financial challenges did not factor into his retirement.
“I made the decision (to retire) two years ago,’’ he said. “I’ve always had a three-year contract. My contract was coming up and I said, ‘I’ll do another two years.’ They said, ‘Why not three?’ I said, ‘I think I’m going to be done at that point. You guys need to be thinking about that and be prepared for that.'’’
Stephanie Glavin, newly elected president of SunFest’s board of directors, confirmed that it was always Jamieson’s intention to retire after the 2023 festival.
“We have been preparing for this transition internally and wish him only the best in his retirement,’’ Glavin said in a statement.
“On behalf of our board and anyone who has enjoyed SunFest during his tenure, we are all so grateful for his committed leadership. We also know that Dianna will do an amazing job leading SunFest into its milestone celebration next year and going forward.”
Although SunFest is trying to evolve and satisfy the preferences of changing audience demographics, there is no denying the strides the festival made in the 27 years under Jamieson’s leadership.
The early years of the festival helped spark a revitalization of downtown West Palm Beach, said former West Palm Beach Mayor Rick Reikenis, who was among community volunteers who launched the first SunFest in 1983 and who served on the festival’s board of directors until 1985.
With Jamieson as its maestro, SunFest blossomed along with new development downtown into a national destination.
“I think he did a first-class job taking what was a success and turning it into a real uber success,’’ Reikenis said.
“I give SunFest a huge amount of credit for the revitalization of and where West Palm Beach is right now. It was the catalyst that turned things around.’’
Raphael Clemente, executive director of the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, agreed and said Jamieson deserves credit.
“Paul’s impact on West Palm Beach has been tremendous. Sunfest did so much to build momentum and brand identity for West Palm Beach, especially the downtown,’’ Clemente said.
“Events are powerful tools to drive economic and community development, and SunFest came at a critical time, when city leadership and the community were working together to rebuild and reactivate the downtown.’’
That SunFest is still around to celebrate its 40th event next spring is a cause for celebration itself, Reikenis said.
“These things are not easy to do. It's a year-round job with lots of people. You're at the mercy of the weather, ‘’ he said.
“It's a very, very intricate, complicated and constantly evolving organism that takes lots of attention and care and feeding. Watching him from a distance, he did an amazing job with SunFest. It continued to blossom and evolve and be a real bright spot for the city.’’
Jamieson, a graduate of Illinois State University, said he’s proud of his accomplishments with SunFest. (“Pretty lucky for a guy with a parks and rec degree,’’ he joked.)
But he said he prefers to deflect credit, pointing out that the festival is a team effort involving more than 2,100 volunteers, three to five staff members, 19 committees and 75 corporate sponsors.
“But the team needs a head coach,’’ Reikenis said. “The team needs a motivator, the team always needs the person providing direction and showing by example what excellence is, and that’s what he demonstrated over the years.’’
Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss, a SunFest volunteer for the past 16 years, said he was always amazed by Jamieson's easy-going manner during the festival each year.
“It’s a lot of pressure and he did a great job,’’ Weiss said. “He was always there during SunFest, I mean, literally all the time from early in the morning until late at night, making sure things were running smoothly. And as you know nothing ever runs smooth but from the perspective of the folks attending they never knew because (Jamieson and his staff) had done the necessary work in advance to make sure it was an enjoyable event.’’
As Jamieson prepares to leave, he said the real heroes are the staff and volunteers that made SunFest happen every year.
“I don’t think people realize how many community people are involved in it. It’s thousands of volunteers and board members and contractors and all these people who are pulling together to make this thing for the community,’’ he said.
“You only see many of them once a year but when you do it's like you haven't missed a beat. It's a family. I know people say that a lot but it really is a family. That's what I'll miss, those people.
“To be allowed to be one of the leaders of that for so long, it’s pretty humbling.’’
He admits it feels “weird” to be stepping away after being involved for 33 years. But he said he is looking forward to traveling this fall before he contemplates his next step.
“It’s a big life change but there are no regrets,’’ he said. “There is another chapter of me doing something but I’m not sure what.’’
© 2023 ByJoeCapozzi.com
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.