NORMAL – After Leah Marlene Day, including her parades and concerts, Normal Town and McLean County Unit 5 took a breather Wednesday, still revelling in the whirlwind of welcoming the “American Idol” finalists home.
“We’re all here for Leah Marlene, we’re here for our community, and it’s amazing to see people respond appropriately,” said Beth Whisman, the town’s cultural arts director.
Organizers from the town, school district and police department got a head start on planning Marlene’s hometown trip as the show’s producers approached after she landed a spot on the top five contestants.
But the real plans weren’t set until 45 hours into the show on Sunday, when she was named a top-three finalist, and on Tuesday night, Uptown’s Normal was packed with people cheering for her parade and concert.
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“It’s definitely a compressed feeling,” said Adam Fox, Normal’s civic arts manager. “It’s our job to have an event in a residential area. … Typically, we have an event a month, three months, six months, or even a year later, to make sure we can build and develop ideas.”
“It gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned. Let’s do it as quickly and directly as we know it can, and make it all work.
Town officials estimate that each department was involved in planning her hometown parade and concert, drawing 10,000 to 15,000 supporters.
“The producers have said to us in a few different ways that Normal is supporting Leah in a way they haven’t seen the community support the contestants in a long time, and the way the community has been coming together is really impressive throughout process,” Fox said. “They knew it was going to be a big turnout, and then when they actually saw, round the corner of the parade route, there was a real awe on their faces, like, ‘Well, you’re not kidding. ‘ It’s very impressive.”
But Marlene also spent a lot of time stopping at her former school.
Unit 5’s director of communications Dayna Brown said volunteers, parents, teachers, staff and students were also happy to help get through the day together.
“People are really excited to be involved, so recruiting volunteers is not an issue at all,” she said. “And it’s not just our schools that have stepped up. Several local businesses have done so.”
Brown said the yellow signs and T-shirts were made in the same short turnaround time as the event, along with posters, hats and decorations by students who “essentially painted the entire district yellow.”
“All of the students at Normal West – some who knew Leah and some who didn’t – worked hard to make the school look so good for the Sunday viewing party and her hometown visit,” she said.
Whisman said the whole community’s team thinking and keeping the planning flowing helped the day run smoothly.
“Sometimes ‘American Idol’ doesn’t know the answer, or they don’t understand our community, so they really leave it to us,” she said, noting that Marlene and the “Idol” producers chose Uptown for the venue because The history of her acting in circles. “It’s great for us to be highly reliant on our team members because it saves us time and it saves us resources.”
Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli said his officers spent the day with Marlene and ensuring her safety was the number one priority, as well as the safety and security of those who attended her event.
“You can have the best plans but they rarely actually work out so they are always fluid and you have to be prepared for contingencies but yesterday’s script was as good as I thought it might have been done ,”He said. “So we are very pleased with the success of the event.”
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Through a mutual aid agreement, officers from the Bloomington Police Department and an officer from the Peoria Police Department joined rank-and-file officers in the parade and concert.
Officers in Peoria, armed with a blast-detecting K9 police dog, swept the concert area after the stage and other exterior parts were brought in, before crowds were allowed in.
“It might seem like overkill, but in this day and age, anything we can do to keep concertgoers or the community safe, we’ll do it. That’s why these mutual aid agreements are so important,” Petrilli said.
The McLean County Emergency Management Agency and the General Fire Department also assisted.
Petrilli said the department was primarily able to use on-duty staff, but some were hired back to handle later incidents, although he did not have an exact number Wednesday.
Normal communications director Cathy Oloffson said the town spent “less than normal” on the event due to community support. Community support included volunteers and even joined the parade in a yellow convertible that Unit 5 managers found for Marlene.
This fiscal year, the town has a budget of approximately $20,000 to market the residential area as a destination for events and other attractions and experiences.
“While we don’t have exact numbers, we know we spent less to host this event than we would have budgeted for in the normal market for residential areas,” Olofson said, noting that “Idol” funded Marlene’s transportation and safety team. “The return on this investment has been invaluable. The Town of Normal will never be able to get the kind of awareness, exposure and coverage we get by showing our community and showing support and care not just for Leah Marlene, but for all those who support her .”
Brown said it was exciting to see so many people supporting Normal West alumni and cheering on all the students who participated in the march.
“Right now we just have to remind everyone to vote on Sunday,” Brown said.
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Please contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.