Irmo's Okra Strut festival in a bind

A giant inflatable Okraman towered above folks at the Okra Strut Street Dance in Irmo Village Shopping Center in 2008.
A giant inflatable Okraman towered above folks at the Okra Strut Street Dance in Irmo Village Shopping Center in 2008.

The nationally known Okra Strut is homeless.

Festival leaders are searching for a new site after the new owner of the Irmo Village shopping center withdrew the welcome mat for its return.

They are asking Irmo officials to allow the fall festival to move to the three-acre town park and surrounding streets.

Putting it there may force the popular gathering to reduce its size to protect the park from damage and to make sure it isn't a nuisance for nearby residents and businesses.

"I'm willing to listen to using the park, but with lots of trepidation's," Mayor John Gibbons said.

The 38-year-old festival has moved sporadically as it has grown, but its leaders say it's time to settle into a permanent home.

Its size was scaled back when the festival moved to the shopping center in 2004, after complaints the gathering had become too big and noisy while on Lake MURRAY Boulevard, a thoroughfare in the center of town.

The festival, one of the Midlands' largest, attracts up to 50,000 people yearly, according to organizers.

Members of the festival commission are developing plans for fitting it into the park area without being disruptive.

"Mission impossible? I don't think," commission chairman Jim Holcomb said.

But the smaller park area may squeeze out features like carnival rides that some residents say makes the gathering generic instead of focused on local history and culture.

"We're at the point where lots of folks feel we need to change," Holcomb said. "It is not a bad thought that it may be smaller, more villagelike."

A final decision on putting it in the park area is expected by late spring, so festival organizers can proceed to finalize plans for the September event.

Town residents will get a chance to comment on the proposal if it first wins tentative acceptance from Town Council.

The five council members have the final say on putting it in the park area.

Other sites outside town are possibilities, but keeping the festival in Irmo is more appealing, Holcomb said.

Gibbons agrees but wants to make sure the festival doesn't overwhelm the park area.

Festival leaders need to keep weighing other sites because a focus on the park area could backfire, he said.

"It's putting all your eggs into one basket that may have a hole in the bottom," Gibbons said.