BUCKHANNON – One might say the West Virginia Strawberry Festival Association Board plans to make strawberry lemonade out of pandemic lemons.
At Buckhannon City Council’s meeting Thursday, Shane Jenkins, president of the 79th annual West Virginia Strawberry Festival, told council members, the W.Va. Strawberry Festival Association is this year focusing on “quality over quantity” in coordinating a weekend berry extravaganza. The goal is to give local people and regional visitors something to look forward to while also reducing the potential for spread of COVID-19.
Council ultimately approved a $10,000 donation to the 2021 WVSF and a slew of requests from the festival, which will primarily take place on Friday, May 14 and Saturday, May 15.
“We’ve had some good conversations and made a lot of progress on what’s best for the community here, and what’s best for the people who come,” Jenkins told council. “What we came up with was more or less a two-day, Friday-and-Saturday event. Friday, of course, will be all in Jawbone Park, aside from the small events like the pancake breakfasts individual [organizations/churches] are having, and those people will take care of those things themselves.”
Minus the carnival and Grand Feature Parade, Jenkins said the festival on Saturday aims to operate “as closely to normal as we can.”
“We would like to have a car show that day in the afternoon on Main Street, so we would have Main Street shut down from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. with some street parties there and our vendors and everything down in Jawbone,” Jenkins said. “We just want to focus on quality over quantity for this.”
Mayor Robbie Skinner said the requests the festival board had made were outlined in a letter in council’s packet, and that the city’s Consolidated Public Works Board had recommended council give the final stamp of approval.
Skinner thanked Jenkins and the board for discussing how to orchestrate the festival amid a number of unprecedented circumstances, including the pandemic and major construction on Spring Street, where vendors are normally set up.
“[We want to] help the Strawberry Festival stay a vital part of this community, especially in a very trying time for all of us,” the mayor said. “We recognize that this has not been easy, and that the Festival Board understands that this is what has to be done, but is sad, as are we all, that this is where the festival is for this year.”
“The most important thing that we can do for you is to support you in every way possible to ensure that the festival is going to happen this year, even at a smaller capacity – that we still observe the Strawberry Festival and work to build back to our normal favorite events in 2022,” Skinner continued.
Councilwoman Pam Bucklew said as a past member of the Festival Board she knows a great deal of work goes into pulling off the festival, and board members are often widely criticized by the general public.
“I think it’s great that they’re putting together something, and it’ll give people something to look forward to,” she said.
Councilman CJ Rylands, a member of the Consolidated Board, thanked Jenkins and the WVSF Board for having a dialogue with city officials.
“I appreciate your willingness to include some of us in objective brainstorming about, ‘how do we react to the things we’re confronted with – the pandemic, and [construction on] Spring Street, and all the other things?’” Rylands said. “These are difficult conversations; these are challenging the status quo, but there’s a lot of paradigm shifts going on in the world right now, and we either work together and collaborate and find a way forward or we don’t.”
“So, I appreciate your leadership in allowing these difficult conversations to at least take place,” he added, “and I think a way forward is collaborating with as many people and groups as possible, and there’s a lot of us out there that way that to happen.”
Councilman David Thomas made a motion to approve the WVSF’s requests for funding, space and more, and city recorder Randy Sanders seconded the motion, which passed unanimously. Councilman Jack Reger participated in Thursday’s meeting remotely.
Skinner told council he wants the city to collaborate with the festival board more frequently throughout the year to “help it get back to what we’re proud to call the largest festival in the state.”
He also addressed some comments, questions and criticisms on various news articles and social media venues.
“The reason it’s important for the festival to have an event of any kind this year is because if the festival does not have an event, they forfeit their state funding that they receive,” Skinner said, “so, even though it’s a small, abbreviated event, that still qualifies them for the state funding that they receive. I just want to make sure [that people know] that it is not our decision, it’s not a decision that the Festival Board wanted to come to, but it’s where we are with the worldwide pandemic and the current conditions.”
The bottom line, Skinner said, is that in order to receive funding from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, “it was imperative” that the W.Va. Strawberry Festival Association stage an event of some sort.
The scheduled lineup for festival weekend will be posted on the Strawberry Festival’s Facebook page, hopefully by the weekend, Jenkins said.