There are 225 new cherry trees running beside the pathways and around the ponds of Ben Brenman Park.
Michael Fleming, owner of Cameron Perks coffee shop and cochairman of the Alexandria Cherry Blossom Festival, described how those trees came to be there. "Last year a bunch of us were sitting around and Cindy said she wanted to plant cherry trees in the park." He is referring to Cindy McCartney, the festival’s other co-chair. After contacting the city of Alexandria, which responded enthusiastically, McCartney and Fleming organized a fundraiser to purchase the trees. For $75, people could purchase a tree in honor of a loved one. The names of both people would go on a plaque to be placed in the park. In order to purchase more mature trees, the city offered to provide matching funds for each donation through its Living Landscape Fund, money set aside in the budget to beautify the city with parks and plants. The community’s response was unambiguous. People purchased 225 trees, wildly exceeding Fleming and McCartney’s expectations.
The first tree was planted in a ceremony last May. "It doesn’t take us long to do anything around here," McCartney explained.
From the beginning, said Fleming, "it was a festival. We were trying to pull people to the West End." For the tree-planting ceremony, vendors set up booths and Mayor William Euille helped throw the first spadefuls of dirt. "The fact that it was in the West End and that there’s a revitalization going on made it more desirable… When I opened up the coffee shop [five years ago] I wanted to be more involved in the community," said Fleming.
This year’s festival will be held Saturday, April 8, and run all day. Bands, dancers, and ninjas will perform all afternoon. There will be children’s activities, food stalls and 30-40 vendors at the event selling things like jewelry, photographs, paintings, blown glass and purses. The Northern Virginia Go Club will teach people to play the Japanese board game. To kickstart interest, the festival is not charging vending fees for its first annual event. "Next year they’ll be jumping at it," explained Fleming.
THERE MAY BE only one thing missing. Because the trees are still young, and were only planted one year ago, event organizers are not sure if the Cherry Blossom Festival will have any cherry blossoms. But there are signs of hope. "They’re budding now," said McCartney. "I went around and checked every one of them and they’re all budding."
The festival was scheduled for April 8, later than DC’s celebration of its blooming trees, because "we wanted it all to be focused on Alexandria," said Fleming. "That was our initial goal. We didn’t want to go down to Old Town. We wanted something here to do. It started as local Cameron Station thing…. We can pull our own weight" in the West End.
"We want this event to grow," said McCartney, "and as more people are moving out this way, with the renovation of Fox Chase and Landmark Mall, this is the perfect time for this."
Amanda Upton, Alexandria’s special events program manager, explained that the genesis of the project in Fleming and McCartney’s efforts was the reason the city was ready to commit to the trees and to the festival. "Usually it needs to be community driven to get an event going. That’s the sure way to know it will be a successful event." Upton added that the city is responsible for the care and maintenance of the trees.
"I used to walk with neighbors in the park and the idea just kind of dawned," said McCartney. She added that Fleming’s willingness to put Cameron Perk’s name and money behind the event gave it legitimacy from its inception. "We were the instigators I guess," said Fleming. But the two never would have begun if they did not expect the residents of Cameron Station to rally behind the effort. "I know I’ll be supported by the rest of the community," said Fleming, who will be moving to Phoenix next month. "This will be my big, big hurrah."