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WHITING | When 119th Street in downtown Whiting closes the morning before the infamous Pierogi Fest begins, it's a rush to get the entire festival set up in 24 hours.

The one road business strip that runs through Whiting undergoes a makeover starting when the street closes at 8 a.m. Thursday.

An estimated 300 to 400 volunteers get to work, erecting 9-foot pink arches, more than 1,000 signs, tents, decorations and thousands of chairs and tables.

Representatives from public works fine-tune utilities on fest grounds, a crew of electricians, carpenters, the state fire marshal's office and the county health department scours the area.

Pierogi Fest's 77 food vendors, 100 arts and crafts booths and 20 specialty vendors set up shop and prepare for the crowd.

"It's really an all-hands-on-deck situation to get this all done," said Tom Dabertin, Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce president and festival chairman. "But, if we didn't have fun with it, we wouldn't be doing it. We're all volunteers here."

The 19th annual Pierogi Fest in downtown Whiting kicks off Friday, with the International Polka Parade beginning at 7 p.m. The parade gives a tongue-in-cheek salute to the area's Eastern European heritage and local officials.

The festival runs through Sunday.

This year's theme is This is the Year of Auntie Kocan, a tribute to the former national president of the First Catholic Slovak Lady's Union and a Whiting native.

Kocan's face can be found on potholders, piggie banks, kitchen utensils and anything imaginable in the temporary Pierogi Fest gift shop on 119th Street.

Each year, the festival draws an estimated 250,000 people during the three-day period.

"It's a small town combined with a tremendous amount of people," Dabertin said.

Brian Lowry, beer garden chairman, said last year, they went through a keg every nine and a half minutes, resulting in the use of 180 kegs.

Lowry said it takes 100 volunteers to set up and run the beer garden. The beer garden stretches two blocks and is stocked with 20 taps, countless kegs, wine and canned beverages.

Lisa Miller, beer garden chairwoman, said out of the 100 volunteers, there are 85 bartenders that serve the massive crowd.

"It's like a theater production. Everyone has a part to play," Miller said.

Dabertin said event planners work with all of Whiting's city departments, the Whiting Fire Department, Whiting Police Department, Hammond Police Department and Lake County Police Department.

Whiting Police Chief Stephen Miller has all 19 Whiting officers on rotation for the festival at all hours. The Hammond Police Department also will have officers on sight.

Stephen Miller said while the crowds are big, there has never been any serious issues. In the 19 years of the festival, Miller said almost no arrests have been made.

"It's a family event," Dabertin said. "That says a lot about the crowds and type of people we bring in, and we want to keep it that way."

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