Growing A GreenFest

By Bill Mahoney

At Howard County’s annual GreenFest in Columbia, Md., more than 90 vendors sell sustainable products while denim jeans and computers are recycled, and participants attend workshops on composting, rain-barrel building, and backyard chicken-raising. More than 3,000 gardeners, birders, and recycling enthusiasts attend GreenFest annually.

With Howard Community College’s Burrill Galleria at capacity for several years, GreenFest’s planning committee knows it is doing some things right, although there are two issues that the event’s planners address each year—how to keep attendance up and how to attract individuals not focused on the environment. Hopefully, the tips and tricks shared in this article will inspire you to host your own green-outreach event.

In 2007, when newly elected County Executive Ken Ulman requested an Earth Day Celebration, two departments organized an event that drew over 1,000 people to a parking lot. With less than a month to plan, the departments made the event a success by advertising free document-shredding and specialized recycling services, while offering a dozen vendors with displays as well as a limited supply of free native trees. However, to grow the celebration’s size and scope, a committee that included additional county departments was formed.

The Planning Committee Promotes Variety
The GreenFest Planning Committee slowly grew to its current size of nine staff members, representing the departments of recreation and parks, public works, planning and zoning, Howard Community College, and the Office of Environmental Sustainability. Having a committee of this size spreads the workload and facilitates the exchange of ideas as the members work in different areas of environmental protection, with different community contacts. As a result, pooling these diverse resources allows the committee to consider a wider range of vendors, non-profit exhibitors, workshops, giveaways, recycling services, and group activities centered on learning or community service.

The composition of the committee also increases outreach and advertising potential. For example, GreenFest is promoted through traditional channels, like press releases, newspaper articles, posters, and social media. Committee members also plug the event at engagements they attend throughout the year. As a result, connections are constantly being made with potential vendors, workshop facilitators, and exhibitors to develop the desired variety of attractions while reducing time spent on recruiting. And since some members have been involved since the beginning while others are new, the occasional turnover helps bring in fresh ideas while the veterans share lessons learned from past events.

Lessons Learned
An event like this takes a while to plan. So while GreenFest occurs near Earth Day each year (April 22), planning for the next year begins immediately after the event as committee members make notes about what worked and what didn’t, while details are still fresh in their minds. After a brief hiatus, the committee reconvenes in late summer to begin discussing the next year’s theme and to fine-tune the paperwork, such as vendor applications.

By mid-November, vendor applications are posted on social media as well as on the county’s GreenFest website, and emails are sent to past vendors. At this point, the committee selects a theme in order to guide recruiting efforts and workshop planning. Postcards and posters are created in the fall to be distributed throughout the community. In January, vendors, speakers, and workshops are organized into a schedule that remains dynamic until solidified in February. During this late-winter period, about 100 volunteers are recruited and organized from National Honor Societies and corporations with community-service initiatives.

Then the great confirmation period begins. Vendors, workshops, and marketing strategies are confirmed while articles, press releases, bus signs, etc. are distributed. Food donations are sought for the event to keep volunteers happy and energetic, and the availability of tools and other resources necessary for outdoor activities is inventoried. 

Before anyone can believe it, the time has come (it’s already March!) to make sure everyone is on the same page. Volunteers are reminded of their duties, and a dress code is designed to make volunteers identifiable to patrons, while the army of vendors, exhibitors, and workshop facilitators are instructed on what they need to bring with them, what will be provided, where to park, and table assignments. With so many vendors, workshops, and exhibits present, follow-up questions, complaints, and special requests are inevitable.

Catering To A Diverse Audience
Each GreenFest has a different theme, and while some vendors, services, and workshops are popular enough to merit annual inclusion, a new theme ensures that the committee is looking for new attractions, which keeps those attending coming back for something different. Citizens who don’t identify as environmentalists might come to GreenFest because their children heard that animals would be present or because their latent farmer genes were activated upon hearing about the workshop on raising backyard chickens. But “post-Fest” statistics suggest that many attend—at least in part—for the variety of recycling services provided.

The list of items recycled at GreenFest last year included:

  • 89 pairs of jeans
  • 40 bikes
  • 45 pairs of shoes
  • 4 tons of electronics
  • 8 tons of paper from document destruction
  • 20 cell phones
  • 105 pairs of eyeglasses.

Few people want to throw away items that can be used by someone else or turned into a new product. Even fewer own a paper shredder. Purging their homes of stuff they don’t use without the guilt of sending it to the landfill is a powerful motivator for prospective attendees. And people who come out to GreenFest to recycle will probably check out the vendors or the workshops or grab some healthy local food. There is something for almost everyone.

Community Partners And Vendors Are The Lifeblood
Assistance from community partners and sponsors elevates the quality of the event incrementally each year. It’s important to remember that an event like this doesn’t reach its full potential in the first few years. As more partners are drawn to the event, the attractions become more diverse and the budget stretches further.

Howard Community College (HCC) requested that the county move GreenFest to its campus after faculty members were in awe at the second festival located at a smaller county-recreation center. Now the event has a free venue with indoor space—which makes the event possible rain or shine—as well as outdoor space for group activities like stream walks, invasive-plant removals, herp searches, native-plant sales, and a children’s nature play space. Not only does the larger venue allow for more attractions, but HCC also provides tables, chairs, and volunteers who help set up and break down the event—a huge relief to the committee as it tries to deal with any last-minute challenges. Volunteers also help with parking, assist attendees looking for a workshop, and are on call for whatever needs arise. 

Meanwhile, other volunteers stretch the budget and provide additional exhibits. For example, the MidAtlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society has provided a live animal exhibit for a minimal fee over the past three years, saving the county the $1,500 previously paid to a for-profit group. Members of the local chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta’s sorority outreach program—Delta GEMS—have volunteered for the past five years, operating the Nike Shoe Recycling program, denim jean recycling, and a workshop on the benefits of shade-grown coffee, complete with samples. The Howard Astronomical League brings a sun-viewing telescope, and the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club sponsors tree and shrub plantings. This is just a sampling of the local resources we are fortunate to have; while I can’t name all of the partners here, I surely appreciate all of them.

Diverse concurrent attractions keep different demographics happy throughout the day. Some vendors provide a “Green Mall” experience for people to stroll through, while the local nature center hosts an arts-and-crafts table. A local bike shop provides a lecture on “How to Bike to Work Safely.”

GreenFest Is Not A Fundraiser
Prices associated with vending, exhibiting, and sponsoring are all modest. Vendors and exhibitors pay $35 for table space at this six-hour event, and non-profits pay $25. The money goes toward marketing, food for volunteers, giveaways, and guest speakers. GreenFest aims only to be self-sustaining in financial terms, knowing community awareness is the biggest payback.

Visit for more details.

Bill Mahoney is a Planner with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning and works on the newly created Green Neighborhood and Green Infrastructure Network initiatives. He can be reached at

Lindsay DeMarzo, Sue Muller, and Alan Wilcom, GreenFest Co-chairs, contributed to this article and can be reached at