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Southern Indiana Festival Organizers Evaluate Prospects For 2021 Season

Abbey Road on the River celebrates the Beatles every year in Jeffersonville.
Courtesy Of Abbey Road On The River
Abbey Road on the River celebrates the Beatles every year in Jeffersonville.

At least one popular Southern Indiana event has already canceled plans for this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting community leaders and event organizers to evaluate their expectations for this year’s festival season.

People have flocked to the countryside of Starlight, Ind., for more than 40 years to attend its strawberry festival in May. But last week, organizers canceled 2021’s festivities because of COVID-19.

It’s the second year in a row the festival has been scrapped, and the region’s first major cancellation of 2021.

Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel said it could be a sign of what’s to come this year.

“Anything earlier than probably June or July, we have to accept the fact that that vaccine rollout, we're all going to be working our tails off to get it to people as soon as we can,” Yazel said. “But it's going to be several months before essentially any person who wants the vaccine can get it.”

Yazel said public events will be up in the air for much of this year. Even after vaccines are widely available, there’s no guarantee people will rush out to large public gatherings.

Yazel thinks some festivals might not move forward until fall.

“Even after we go through this process, unfortunately, there is a little bit of an unknown,” Yazel said. “And that's just hard when you plan an event that's going to need a lot of community investment and things like that just to host the event. I'm sure that’s a nervous proposition for some people – to have an event planned, then all of a sudden have to call it off or scale it back.”

A scaled-back festival season would also have an impact on the local economy. Luanne Mattson is the Assistant Director at SoIN Tourism, the tourism bureau for Clark and Floyd Counties. SoIN Tourism is funded by innkeepers’ taxes from hotels, and it uses that money to promote attractions and businesses in the area.

Fewer public events means fewer visitors and decreased revenue for the bureau. Mattson said projections for 2020 show SoIN Tourism generated only about 80% of 2019’s funding. For 2021, she expects that number could go as low as 50%.

Without the economic boost of festivals, Mattson said local businesses will also struggle to stay in the black.

“I think the people that will have the most challenges will be people like restaurants, which always have such thin margins,” she said. “And, you know, smaller attractions that may not have the money to do a lot of advertising.”

The events that draw people to the area often center around Louisville, including the Kentucky Derby and numerous music festivals, none of which have been canceled yet. 

But many homegrown events also bring people to Hoosier communities along the Ohio River. Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore points to gatherings like the Easter Egg Hunt, RiverStage Concerts, Steamboat Nights and the Fourth of July parade.

Moore said City Hall is moving forward with plans for all festivals this year, but will adjust accordingly by including cancellation clauses in contracts.

“I hate to hear of anybody already canceling events,” he said. “It's not only because I want to get back to normal and have fun times. But economically, you cannot just simply shut everything down and survive.”

One of the biggest events staged in Jeffersonville is Abbey Road on the River, which markets itself as the world’s largest Beatles festival. Last year’s cancellation of Abbey Road was the first time founder Gary Jacob had to scrap an event in his 40-year entertainment career.

The festival would celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, if it moves forward. But Jacob is putting together contingency plans, since his acts come from all over the world.

“We are watching the vaccination rollouts very carefully,” Jacob said. “And obviously, this latest spike in infection rates throughout the country is not good news for anybody right now, especially those of us in the live entertainment business.”

Abbey Road usually takes place in May, but Jacob is holding on to other dates as well, including Labor Day weekend and October. If the festival happens, Jacob isn’t sure how the public will respond, even as the pandemic winds down.

“I think producers, like myself, have to manage our own expectations and not expect that we're going to open the doors and people are going to come flooding in,” he said.

Jacob expects many festival organizers, along with the local vendors who rely on them, will continue to struggle to stay afloat in 2021. But by 2022, he hopes to see some normality return to everyday life.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.