By Richard Rourk
Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce officials announced last week that the 43rd Annual Unicoi County Apple Festival, originally scheduled for Oct. 2-3, has been cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and public health concerns surrounding the virus.
According to the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp, the Chamber Board of Directors made the decision to cancel the festival, following a unanimous vote by the board, on July 30.
“It is with a heavy heart that we made the decision to cancel this year’s festival,” Delp said. “We have spent months reviewing every possible scenario to be able to continue with October’s event, but no options avail that enable us to safely hold the festival. The health and safety of our community, vendors and festival attendees are of the utmost importance to us in our event planning, and with the guidelines and mandates set forth by state government and health officials, we have made the difficult yet necessary decision to cancel the Apple Festival for this year.”
In 1978, an event known as Old Joe Clark Day was held in downtown Erwin. The one-day event included less than a dozen of vendors spread out around the courthouse square in downtown Erwin and featured live music including a performance by Old Joe Clark himself. Over the years, the festival has grown and evolved into the popular two-day event that draws more than 375 vendors and attendees from all over the country. For more than four decades, the Unicoi County Apple Festival has been a homecoming and tradition in Erwin, where memories are made, and history is retold.
According to Delp, the historic festival will be missed this year by locals and visitors alike.
“We know the Unicoi County Apple Festival is more than ‘just a festival’ for our community – it is a time of homecoming and holiday for our residents, a time where those that have moved away can return to visit with old friends and reminisce of years gone by,” Delp said. “It is a time where county resident’s welcome visitors from all across the country with warm southern hospitality and showcase the beauty and splendor of Unicoi County.”
Over the past 42 years, the Unicoi County Apple Festival has received numerous awards and accolades including being named twelve times as a Top 20 Event in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society. The festival has been a three-time winner of the Pinnacle Award presented by the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association and has been named twice as a Readers Choice event by the Johnson City Press.
According to Delp, it’s been a rough situation having to call local businesses and vendors to break the news of the cancellation and for those businesses to realize the financial impact the cancellation will cause.
“I have to make some difficult phone calls,” Delp said.
Delp acknowledged that the chamber exhausted every available option before the board came to a decision.
“Our executive committee met several times to discuss the possibility of spacing vendors out, perhaps limiting vendors to operate on a single side of the street, but after examining every possible solution we had to make the difficult call,” Delp said. “After looking at the guidelines laid out by the governor’s office, it recommends that festivals have one way in and one way out traffic and there was no way to barricade entry points into the festival to comply with this. We simply don’t have the finances, the man power or the resources to accomplish that.”
Another factor that caused the demise of this year’s festival is the lack of control over crowd size.
“We can control how many vendors we have, but we gave no control over crowd size,” Delp said. “We would have to have a reduced number of individuals going through the festival grounds at a time and that would be difficult at best to control. You don’t know how many people are going to show up – there’s just no way to control that and perform the measure safely.”
Delp broke the news of the cancellation and the financial impact that is a result of the cancellation to all of the vendors following Thursday’s decision.
“We sent out letters today,” Delp said. “The agreement that our vendors signed has a clause that states ‘if the festival is cancelled under uncontrollable circumstances, that the chamber is not responsible for returning booth fees for 2020. Our board voted that for those vendors that paid fees in 2020, they will get application fees discounted by 50 percent in 2021.”
According to Delp, the news of the cancellation and the financial impact has been well received so far, given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.
“This is a tough time for everyone,” Delp said. “Overcoming the loss of revenue for all involved with the festival will be difficult. The businesses especially will feel the effects of the cancellation. We are currently looking at ways to minimize the financial impact of the situation.
Delp acknowledged that the chamber will also accrue losses due to the cancellation.
“Our board starts planning for next year’s event following the previous year’s festival. We begin paying for insurance premiums, advertising, and numerous other prepayments for the festival,” Delp said. “We are looking at roughly more than $20,000 in fees that are already paid for the now cancelled 2020 festival.”
Work is already underway to return the festival to downtown Erwin in October 2021. For more information, please contact the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000.