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'It's a Gut Punch.' Local Summer Festivals Canceled for 2020

by on April 17, 2020 10:10 AM

Four major summer festivals in Centre County will not take place this year because of ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Central PA 4th Fest, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, People's Choice Festival, and Philipsburg Heritage Days are all canceled for the first time in their respective histories, organizers and representatives of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau said during a Zoom call on Friday morning.

"We have come to the decision, difficult as it is, that these events will not be held this year," Happy Valley Adventure Bureau Executive Director Fritz Smith said.

The festivals and the bureau have been in discussions, Smith said, and the logistics of organizing each festival combined with the current mitigation guidelines and uncertainty about how long they would last led to the decision.

Each is planning to do a virtual celebration of some kind, with more details to come. 

"This is the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my years in the workforce," said Rick Bryant, executive director of Arts Festival, which is canceled for the first time in its 54-year history. "We are trying to keep the health and safety of our artists, performers and audience members foremost in mind. We don’t want State College and the Centre Region to become known as the petri dish for the spread of anything other than happiness. So we felt we had to make this decision. It’s the right thing to do, unfortunately."

The festivals are "hallmark events" that draw an estimated 300,000 visitors each July, Smith said. The bureau is formulating an estimate for the total economic loss that will be incurred from their cancelation.

"It’s a gut punch. It chokes me up," said John Madison, co-director of the People's Choice Festival in Boalsburg, which started 28 years ago. "These festivals mean a lot to a lot of people around here. It’s going to be tough, but we will be back… I think we’ve all made the best decision, as hard as it’s been."

Kurt Weibel, president of Central PA 4th Fest, said an organized Centre Region fireworks celebration for Independence Day has been taking place for at least 39 years. 4th Fest cannot produce a fireworks show and allow people to watch from their vehicles this year because the event still requires set up and clean up that would go against current social distancing guidelines.

4th Fest is still working on ways to celebrate the Fourth of July, which will be announced over the coming months, and Weibel, like other organizers, said the festival plans to come back stronger next year.

"I think this is going to allow us to pull back the slingshot, so to speak, and allow us to come out of the gate with some neat, interesting stuff for 2021," he said.

Philipsburg Heritage Days, which has been a community event since 1998, was planning a special celebration of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District this year, which will now move to 2021, founder and president Jim Pollock said.

"We were going to highlight our local school district and we really had a lot of buy-in from students and faculty and we really had a great time planned," Pollock said. "And then as we all know the schools were closed… so we’re going to hit the pause button. We’ll follow through next year and have our celebration and we will continue with theme we had planned for this year with the school district, 'Be True to Your School,' and we look forward to coming back as big as ever."

Pollock added that the festival is also an important fundraising time for different groups, such as fire and EMS companies, and that organizers are evaluating ways to support them.

Bryant said festival cancelations are happening all over the country, causing a significant financial impact for artists, vendors and communities.

"I could give you a list that’s as long as your arm. Events are canceled into the fall, arts festivals and music festivals," he said.

On Thursday, Penn State announced it would continue with remote learning through the summer sessions, but allowed for the possibility that if circumstances change, students could return for in-person classes for the second summer session. Though Arts Fest and People's Choice might look at small-scale events if that's the case, each said it would be virtually impossible to simply reschedule for this year because of the logistics for artists, vendors, rental agencies and volunteers.

News of the cancelations came on what would have been the start of Penn State's Blue-White Weekend, another important tourism day for the region that had already been nixed and replaced with virtual events hosted by Penn State Athletics.

Smith said the Adventure Bureau had recently launched a re-brand, was planning a new $500,000 marketing campaign, and anticipated a record-break season for visitations to Centre County.

"But I want to assure everyone travel will rebound just as it has after other crises," he said. "We’re well-positioned. We’re already working on what we call 'the pivot plan.' When the 'all clear' sign comes on we will be ready to come back with a marketing campaign to bring visitors back here. We’re coming back stronger.

He added that the bureau will gear up its efforts as soon as it becomes safe for people to visit again.

"There is a reason to visit this place 365 days a year, so we would very much be actively back in the business of marketing and inviting people to visit Centre County," he said.

Scott Walker, chair of the Adventure Bureau's marketing committee and general manager of the State College Spikes, said there has been no change as of yet to the single-A short-season Minor League Baseball schedule that starts in June.

"Nothing has been decided, so we’re planning as if we’re on for June 18," he said. "Nothing’s been decided on, but I assure you safety will be the first thing on everybody’s mind."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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