BUCKHANNON – A cook-off showcasing strawberry barbecue sauce – and specifically, the proposed expansion of a beer garden – generated some sizzle at Buckhannon City Council’s meeting Thursday.

Rondal Mitchell addressed council Thursday to inquire about the possibility of expanding a beer garden during the Strawberry Festival that was originally going to be confined to a small area near the Salvation Army parking lot.

Mitchell asked council for permission to expand to the area where vendors set up behind China Wok. He began his appeal with an announcement about a savory new event at this year’s festival.

“We’re really proud to announce that we’re doing a first-ever Strawberry Barbecue Cook-off, and we have five categories that we’re having, and one of them is a strawberry barbecue sauce,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the cook-off is tentatively scheduled for Sunday, May 12, and that in conjunction the event, the festival board had arranged to set up a small beer garden in a “small plot of land” across from the Salvation Army.

He noted the WVSF is working with Anheuser-Busch in Elkins, noting the beer garden area will be roped off. However, as Mitchell began to contemplate the logistics of a beer garden, he began to think the area might be too small – so small it could hinder sales.

“As I got to thinking about this … and other festivals in West Virginia, such as the Italian Heritage Festival, where the ability to move around with your drink is a little bit bigger, I would just like to propose that you would think about an amendment that would allow us to expand our area – our floor plan – to include the area of food and vending, right there behind China Wok,” Mitchell said.

“It would allow patrons to have a little bit bigger area where they can get their beverage and take it and eat,” Mitchell added. “One of the reasons I feel like this would be beneficial is when you have to buy your food (in the vendor’s area) and then walk across the street and eat it in a small area (the beer garden), I don’t as many people will do that.

“And speaking with Anheuser-Busch distributors, the profit margin … that the Strawberry Festival would be able to make is extremely substantial.”

Mitchell noted the Blue & Gray Reunion in Philippi, W.Va., recently made $9,000 in profit over the course of two days selling beer at a beer garden.

He said the board envisioned the beer garden being open Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12 during the Strawberry Barbecue Cook-off, as well as Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of Festival Week. WVSF officials plan to monitor alcohol consumption levels with armbands “so we’re not giving 30 beers to one person,” Mitchell said.

Mayor David McCauley asked Mitchell to provide council with a map of the revised floor plan and an official request letter from the WVSF Board of Directors by its April 4 meeting.

“It’s not on our agenda tonight, so even if we support it, we couldn’t give you formal approval because it’s not on our agenda,” McCauley said.

Councilman CJ Rylands asked about the specifics of the revised plan.

“So, you want to expand this from private property to the North Spring parking lot where food vendors are located … so you’d expand your floor plan via the West Virginia ABCA (Alcohol Beverage Control Administration)?”

“Correct,” Mitchell replied, noting the ABCA was primarily concerned that a beer garden not be located within 100 feet – via street or sidewalk – from a church or school.

McCauley said the WVSF and council might face some pushback against the idea.

“There will some folks that will weigh in and say, ‘Oh they’re turning this wonderful family thing into a big beer party,’ but when you go to venues that are also family friendly like the Italian Heritage Festival … they have [beer gardens],” the mayor said.

“Or Applebee’s,” Mitchell added.

Councilman Robbie Skinner said he didn’t like the sound of the idea.

“I just need to say something: we’ve got to be careful with this stuff …we’ve got to be careful with just letting alcohol run rampant,” he said.

On Saturday, Skinner told My Buckhannon he’s not in favor of the beer garden, period.

“I would prefer that the beer garden not exist at all. Period,” he wrote. “Thus, I’m certainly not supportive of the expansion of it onto city streets and public property. The Strawberry Festival has always been a family-friendly event, and I believe that, by including alcohol, the ‘family-friendly’ atmosphere could be compromised.”

Skinner went on to say a beer garden could create more work for city police.

“I also believe it places an added and unnecessary burden on law enforcement,” he said. “I don’t like that City Council is just now learning of this request. This is something we should’ve been made aware of long before March in order to properly plan.

“If I were a parent of a teenager who wanted to go downtown to listen to the bands, and hang out with friends, like I did as a teenager, I would think twice knowing alcohol is being served openly in vendor alley,” he added. “If festival attendees want to enjoy adult beverages, there are several bars and taverns in the downtown area. Those establishments ensure that IDs are checked, and that alcohol cannot leave the establishment. It’s much better controlled that way.”

In other Strawberry Festival-related news, Carol Long announced the Tennerton Community Council and the WVSF Association be presenting “Strawberry Friday in the Park” from 5-8:30 p.m. Friday, May 10 in Jawbone Park.

The new event will feature strawberry food vendors; hotdogs, snacks and drinks sold by the Tennerton Lions Club; and musical entertainment from Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Buckhannon-Upshur High School students.

Long noted it’s the day prior to the Horse & Carriage Parade.

“In the last couple years, the Horse and Carriage Parade has been rather small,” she said, “but this year, it’s going to be nice … we’ve got them coming from all over the place.”

For a complete list of WVSF events, visit www.wvstrawberryfestival.com.