The 2020 Grape and Fall Festival (GFF) and Old Iron Works Days (OIWD) have both been canceled due to COVID-19. The Fall Festival was scheduled for August, while Old Iron Works Days was to be held in October.
On Saturday, the St. James Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors announced the cancellation of GFF, siting public safety and cost concerns about putting on a large event this year where many residents would be interacting in groups.
“This decision was not made by a few, but by a majority vote of the committee followed by a majority vote of the board,” Chamber President Beth Gardner explained. “This was not easy to decide and we had many moving parts to consider. Festivals in nature are an event of high risk and in this unprecedented year, the risk is just too high. We have to consider the health and safety of patrons and volunteers, as well as the financial risk involved.”
She said the decision might be viewed as controversial, but the board and GFF committee felt it was the right decision this year and both want to be transparent to the community on why the decision was made.
“We are all aware of the risks of spreading COVID-19 at larger gatherings. In light of the recent increase in positive cases in St. James, we cannot be certain that our community can safely gather together, nor can we predict the future restrictions that may be put in place if numbers continue to rise,” Gardner explained. “We must think of our community’s safety first and foremost. Not only would we be inviting our own citizens to gather in large groups where social distancing is difficult, but we would also be inviting vendors and workers from outside of our area, increasing the potential for outside exposure.”
Gardner added, “Many employees associated with our event companies would be constantly traveling before coming into our small town and then coming into close contact with our citizens. Volunteers are often difficult to find and would be at a higher risk, as they would need to work closely with guests and vendors from all over. We can’t ask our citizens and volunteers to take these risks in order to support our event.”
She also pointed to the financial risk to both the Chamber and patrons of the festival as it costs a lot of money to put on the event each year.
“The Chamber receives income from only membership dues, events, and a percentage of the city’s tourism hotel bed tax. Due to statewide restriction orders, our fundraising events have been canceled and the bed tax is minimal. This leaves us to lean on sponsors and gate admission to cover the nearly $40,000 (not including any music concerts) in non-refundable expenses that may come with GFF,” she said.
Gardener thanked the sponsors who supported holding this year’s event, “but we do not wish to gamble with their hard-earned money.” She added planning could have continued, but if the event had to be canceled closer to the date there could have been little refunded and “our sponsors money would go to waste.” Also, had there been little participation, the Chamber would have been left in a bad financial situation trying to cover costs associated with putting on the GFF.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our members and sponsors to be good stewards of the funds we receive and this year’s festival would be too risky an investment,” she said. Gardner added the GFF committee will begin work on bringing the event back in 2021, which will be the Missouri Bicentennial, and hopes to make it the most memorable yet. There are still plans by the FFA and 4-H to hold a livestock show and sale off site and those plans will be announced when they are set.
On Monday, Old Iron Works Days also became a casualty of COVID-19, with The James Foundation announcing this year’s event is canceled. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, we believe it is best to limit large events at the park this year. Although our organization weighed the pros and cons of continuing with the event, two issues kept coming to the forefront of discussion,” Regional Manager of The James Foundation Wes Swee said.
“First, we are very concerned a larger gathering of people would be unsafe for our staff and visitors. This spring, The James Foundation was proactive in following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and statewide regulations to decrease potential exposure and to help flatten the curve,” Swee said.
The park was reopened in May after shutting down for two months, with a slow reopening limiting the amount of people entering the park at a given time.
“Our current procedures have been implemented for daily attendances ranging from 200 to 800 people per day. Roughly 5,000 people attended Old Iron Works Days each day and we think it is in the best interest of the staff, vendors, entertainers, volunteers, and patrons we postpone this event until next year,” Swee said.
Swee also pointed to the cost associated with holding OIWD and how the coronavirus has financially affected the park as another reason for the cancellation.
“Due to the loss of revenue from the park closure this spring, as well as delays to opening the campground, store, café, and museums, we are faced with many budget cuts to finish out the year. On perfect years, with great weather and high attendance, the park sees a small return on investment. The potential for low attendance and an already stressed fiscal budget makes it very risky to pursue large events, such as Old iron Works Days, this year.” Swee said.
He added The James Foundation hopes to bring back OIWD and other special events to the park next year when things are, hopefully, returning to normal operation.
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