BUCKHANNON – The West Virginia Strawberry Festival Association Board asked the Consolidated Public Works Board for permission to close East Main Street for certain parts of the 79th annual Strawberry Festival, which is still currently scheduled for May 8-16, 2021.
During a previous meeting, the two boards decided to utilize Jawbone park for the 2021 festival by having the vendors and entertainment in the park.
Then, during this week’s Jan. 28 Consolidated Board meeting, Gary Connell, first vice president with the West Virginia Strawberry Festival Board, confirmed they are ready to utilize Jawbone Park. However, Connell and Shane Jenkins, president of the WVSF Board, said they would still like to close East Main Street for certain events.
“I included pretty much just line for line what we’ve always requested in the past,” Jenkins said. “[It’s just] some of the changes were that a lot of the things that were normally on Spring Street, and in that lot, will be brought over to Jawbone, of course,” Jenkins said. “Along with that, just another one of our biggest topics has been the use of East Main Street, where we normally have it completely closed down.”
Jenkins said he recently learned city officials are reluctant to close down Main Street.
“It came up that may not be a possibility after a conversation with Mayor Skinner, what we wanted to do moving forward, and after much discussion, we decided that we would like to still like to [request to] close East Main Street at this time,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said the board is requesting that the street be closed when it would during a typical, non-pandemic festival week: on Wednesday night for the car show, Friday night for the street parties, and Saturday night for the street parties after the parade.
Mayor Robbie Skinner said he felt the central idea behind moving the Spring Street entertainers and food vendors to Jawbone was to have a hub of entertainment at the park, rather than spreading it around.
“The idea was to try to concentrate all of the entertainment into Jawbone Park, and that way we benefit the vendors and the carnival,” Skinner said. “We’re not trying to spread entertainment all over the downtown area where it may not be necessary to do so.”
City Recorder Randy Sanders asked if the board was aware of the upgrades the city has made to the park.
“We had briefly talked about that and one of the biggest issues we were seeing, and I think one of the biggest motivating factors to close the street, was basically the competition of noise down there because of the carnival rides and things that have sound,” Jenkins said. “We don’t want our bands competing with that because the only way we could see having a band there was on one of the corners, and the way we saw it, it would be projecting into those same areas.”
Consolidated Board member and city councilman CJ Rylands said they have had bands in the park before and they may need to cooperate with the festival.
“For years, I’ve been talking to Gary about getting the food and the entertainment at Jawbone because it didn’t make sense to have them so far apart,” Rylands said. “Every year I go to the food vendors, but I don’t go to the carnival, but if they were together, I’d be going to both of them.”
Connell said he thinks there is a certain sentimentality to having the street closed because that is how it has always been.
“As far as moving to vendors, that’s going to benefit us totally,” Connell said. “As far as closing Main Street, there’s a lot of sentimental [value] to that, and a whole lot of people have been doing it for 29 years, and change is a very hard thing.”
Skinner said if the festival board was going to make a big change, the 2021 event would be the time to do it, since it will most likely have to different anyway because of COVID-19.
“This will probably be the smallest festival we have had in a long time, maybe ever since the very beginning of it,” Skinner said. “I think the conversation has also been that of all the years to try something different, this is it –to see if it’s something else might work a little bit better, or if it doesn’t work and we go back to the drawing board.”
Skinner said the two boards will need to discuss the matter further, and the Consolidated Public Works Board will have a decision by their next meeting in February.
“Consolidated meets once a month, so we’ll have another meeting at the end of February, the fourth week, and I think at that point, we should be able to have a decision,” Skinner said. “Then, it’ll be referred to the next city council meeting which will be the fourth of March, and that’ll be it.”
The two boards are hopeful the festival will happen in some form.
“I’m on the board of West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals, and it’s pretty evident that we’re going to have to have at least a 50 percent vaccination rate,” Connell said. “Again, I can’t officially say that, but that’s what I’ve been told – that there’s going to have to be at least a 50 percent vaccination rate before we can even think about having an event like that.”
The Consolidated Public Works Board will make a recommendation to Buckhannon City Council about closing or not closing down Main Street, and council will have the final word.