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Instead of a sea of people listening to concerts at Artpark, this summer find folks in cars, socially distanced, and wearing masks (vendors, too), as they watch drive-in movies at the Lewiston venue. (Photo by K&D Action Photo & Aerial Imaging; see more from the Tragically Hip event at www.wnypapers.com)
Instead of a sea of people listening to concerts at Artpark, this summer find folks in cars, socially distanced, and wearing masks (vendors, too), as they watch drive-in movies at the Lewiston venue. (Photo by K&D Action Photo & Aerial Imaging; see more from the Tragically Hip event at www.wnypapers.com)

Lewiston looks a lot different this summer

by jmaloni
Sat, Aug 15th 2020 07:00 am

Festivals, concerts canceled, but life goes on for community

By Joshua Maloni

GM/Managing Editor

Four-and-a-half months after New York state went on “PAUSE” to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, organizations are still cancelling events. In fact, it’s been a pretty steady, rather depressing stream of “See you in 2021 – we hope” messages sent to this newspaper each week.

Of course, the most notable cancellations involve the Village of Lewiston’s myriad summer festivals, as well as Artpark & Company concerts.

Normally, the Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce staff would be recovering from the Smelt Festival and Taste of Lewiston, and busy preparing for the Northwest Jazz and Harvest & Hops festivals.

“The summer of 2020 has certainly been one for the books for many reasons. Walk down the sidewalks of any or our River Region communities and the vibe just feels different,” President Jennifer Pauly said. “We miss the weekly concerts, large festivals, 5Ks, tourists, bike runs, and outdoor dining and patios spilling over with people enjoying summer days and nights. We miss the live music on the street or in the park, the favorite vendor in the spot we know they are usually at, and blocking off parts of the calendar because of the ‘must do’ events, concerts or race we had to be a part of.

“From May through September, there are six major festivals that take place in the Village of Lewiston. The Village of Youngstown has several anchor attractions and smaller/park events that keep the main street humming. The speedway fuels the summer nights and creates energy in Ransomville. The hamlet of Sanborn has antique shops and events at the farm museum that have led to positive growth.”

Vendors at Artpark wear a mask.

Without fail – in a “normal” year – Lewiston business owners and restaurateurs are out in full force on festival weekends. Many say the proceeds from these events carry them through the leaner, quieter winter months.

What’s more, the festivals are used to generate funds for civic projects, community beautification, and nonprofit and educational organizations.

“The chamber is involved in all of the major festivals in Lewiston, either in promotion, volunteering or coordination. The loss of these events has had a major impact on the organizations that generate them for sources of revenue, as well as the many businesses that benefit from the influx of people and consumer spending,” Pauly said. “The economic impact of all of the missed festivals, tourist spending and attractions is easily at a loss in the millions of dollars for our region. Many of our businesses depend on the revenue from the longstanding festivals. A good festival weekend with perfect weather and record attendance could carry a business into the tough months when traditionally tourism numbers and spending in general are down: October, November, January through April.”

The Taste of Lewiston is usually one of the first summer festivals in Lewiston. (File photos)

What Should’ve Been

“The band Cinderella said it best, ‘Don't know what you got (till it's gone).’ While closing the street down or having a vendor in front of your shop for two days could be a minor inconvenience at the time, it seems like one we would gladly take this year in order to have some sense of festival vibrancy back in our lives,” Pauly said. “In conversation with business owners, I hear, ‘I miss the energy the festivals bring to the street,’ or ‘As much as I didn't think – fill in the blank with the attraction or concert – brought me business, I'm seeing with new eyes how much I am missing those customers.’ ”

One of 2020’s first canceled events was the Lewiston GardenFest, which would’ve taken place June 20-21.

President Sharon Low said, “The Garden Club did lose revenue from our GardenFest and perennial sale due to the cancelation. The profits are unknown because they vary from year to year. We did, however, return the vendors fee, which had been sent to us before the cancelation.

“We are sad for our regular vendors who probably did not have a good year because of the cancelation of so many festivals. We also feel badly for the impact that COVID-19 had on the closing of stores and restaurants on Center Street. We always hope that the festivals bring customers to the village.

“When I sent information on our Facebook page that we would not have the fest this year, I received many comments of disappointment from the public. It's always nice to hear from people that it is their favorite festival.”

GardenFest funds go toward plantings and upkeep of green space in Lewiston.

“We had enough funds to continue our regular work in our adopted areas around the village. However, there was no big project this year. Hopefully, by June 2021, things will be back to normal,” Low said.

The Jazz Festival, which is nearing its 20th anniversary, would’ve taken place at the end of this month.

Board of Directors Chairman George Osborne said, “It would seem to me that restaurants and bars would be impacted the most by festival cancellations along with forced closures and ongoing limited openings. It is too early to evaluate the long-term impact this will have, but I would not look for everything to return to normal next summer.

“The Jazz Festival suffered a substantial loss as we had to cover operations and overhead, but we are not threatened as our surplus was more than adequate to cover any losses. I expect the Jazz Festival will come back close to full strength.”

With no Peach Festival in September, Victoria Skrlin-Kozak will carry over her Peach Queen reign into 2021. Families also will miss the Peach Festival parade this year. (File photos)

Why It Matters

The Kiwanis Club of Lewiston was, perhaps, the most reluctant to cancel its 2020 programming. Kiwanians use the Niagara County Peach Festival to fund their charitable contributions for the next year.

Past President Marty Pauly said, “The Peach Festival itself is one of the major attractions, which bring thousands of people into Lewiston. I firmly believe other villages wished they had what Lewiston has with regard to festivals, as well as residents willing to sacrifice many long hours to make them a success.

“The Kiwanis Club of Lewiston, each year following the festival, donates tens of thousands of dollars back into the community. These donations go to a variety of charity and nonprofit organizations. Also receiving these goods are community events such as the village’s annual Spring Fling and the Lewiston Kiwanis Easter egg hunt.

“The Peach Festival allows the Kiwanis Club to award thousands of dollars in scholarship money to local students. Along with financially supporting local graduates, Kiwanis supports student leadership groups in our area’s schools from the primary grades through college. These groups receive the financial support they need and also have Kiwanis members as their advisers. Within these leadership groups, students learn the meaning of being a community-minded citizen. What it’s like being a volunteer and performing projects to help the less-fortunate. All of this is a direct result of the Peach Festival.”

He added, “It should be quite clear how important the Peach Festival is. Not just for Kiwanis to continue doing what we do every year, but also for the local economy. This is true of all festivals. The festivals are a major source of revenue, which helps some of the businesses get through the slower, winter months, which plague our region every year.”

Artpark has swapped concerts for drive-in movies. (File photos)

Organizations Pivot

Though events are scarce, organizers haven’t exactly been on vacation over these past four-plus months.

The Chamber of Commerce held weekly Zoom meetings, offering safety briefings with local elected leaders and business-to-business networking events. It also debuted a give and take table, providing nonperishables to those in need – an especially worthwhile endeavor during the pandemic’s early weeks, when groceries and toiletries were in short supply.

“Our organization has, thankfully, positioned itself to have a reserve fund that is helping us get through this year and will take us into 2021,” Jennifer Pauly said. “The staff and board had to make tough decisions and a lot of cuts to ensure that this organization is here to help grow the communities we represent and business/organization members. Somehow, our businesses and organizations have figured out how to pivot and find a way to make the best of navigating through this time. The effects of the loss of income from this year will have a lasting impact for a few years.”

In lieu of an Art Festival, the Lewiston Council on the Arts hosted an online “Chalk YOUR Walk” competition. At 4 p.m. last Saturday – the time when the high school Chalk Walk winners would’ve been announced on Center Street – LCA members gathered at the International Peace Garden to recognize artists who would not otherwise have been eligible to participate.

“The pandemic caused the cancelation of many of the concerts, festivals and programs that have made Lewiston a thriving arts community and cultural epicenter. This weekend would have been the 54th Lewiston Art Festival and the 36th Chalk Walk competition. In order to salvage something of this epic weekend, Lewiston Council on the Arts reinvented the KeyBank Chalk Walk competition into the ‘Chalk YOUR Walk’ competition and made it virtual,” the LCA stated in a press release. “Anyone in Western New York could submit their chalk mural to compete for $800 in prize money. Chalk artists from 26 ZIP codes submitted 53 images that were posted to the Art Council Facebook page, where the public could then decide on the People’s Choice winner by registering their ‘Likes.’ Almost 7,000 votes were cast for murals created by chalkers ages 7 to ‘old as dirt.’ ”

Artpark & Company scrapped its popular “Tuesdays in the Park” concert series, but came up with an assortment of new programming. Drive-in movie nights have been successful – and visitors have noticed the main parking lot is getting a mural makeover. A Native American Peace Garden was recently dedicated, and a reimagined Fairy House Festival will take place this weekend. There’s also “The Art of Walking,” which is a guided tour exploring the state park’s natural beauty and famed history.

In a June press release, Executive Director Sonia Kozlova Clark said, “Like everyone else, Artpark and our community have been living through an unprecedented time of major sacrifice and loss. Such a time calls for a special kind of action, strategy and attitude. Right now, all on the Artpark team are focused on handling the ramifications of the unpredictable and managing what is under our control. While large-scale concerts will not be possible this summer, Artpark offers its natural beauty and inspiration to artists and visitors. Looking at this new emerging season, I see an Artpark that serves its community through the healing and uniting power of the arts and nature – an Artpark that serves its mission to nurture artistic talent while providing invaluable service to our audiences through experiences in the park that make us stronger.”

The Jazz Festival hopes to return even stronger in 2021. (File photo)

Residents Respond

While the absence of festivals and events could’ve spelled certain doom for the local economy, something unexpected happened.

Village of Lewiston Mayor Anne Welch said, “I’ve been in contact with all the restaurant owners, the business owners, and they’re doing really well.”

The reason why, she explained, is, “The locals are really supporting the businesses.”

“The (business owners) are missing out, because of Artpark and the festivals – they count on those festivals to make money. I just think that the locals have picked up the slack for them,” Welch said.

She added, “Everybody’s doing local. I think they realize that Lewiston is pretty safe, as far as our numbers for COVID. I know I do; I stay right in the village. I don't need to go anyplace. They have everything I need right here.”

Even if New York allowed festivals, large events or concerts, crowds would be smaller. There has been a federal ban at the Canadian border, limiting travel to and from the neighbor to the north. In addition, New York has a travel advisory wherein anyone traveling to one of more than 30 states with a higher coronavirus infection rate must, upon return, quarantine at home for two weeks.

It’s remarkable then, Village of Lewiston Treasurer Stephanie Myers reported that, after two months of a roughly 33% drop in sales tax received, the municipality netted more in July 2020 revenues than it did in July 2019.

The Village Bake Shoppe owner Michael Fiore said, “Our community has kept us busy. It seems like we’re taking more cake and desserts orders than we did before. Our wedding cake business is on the rise after a slow start. The new restrictions on weddings have changed a few things, but people are still getting married, which is a huge blessing for us.

“Although the border is closed and there are no festivals, our store shelves have been wiped out every weekend. I never thought this would happen a few months ago. We’ve even added bakers to help keep up with demand. We owe it all to our amazing community. God has been so good to us through all this.”

Still, Apple Granny Restaurant co-owner Chuck Barber said this summer has an unwanted feel to it.

“First and foremost, we’re definitely keeping our head above water. But what I consider this to be is the long winter,” he said. “You know, we've always made it through the winter, but we plan accordingly. We have our expectations differently; our resources differently. We get into March, where, for Apple Granny's, with our fish fry, once we get into lent is where the wheels start turning again. Then we have Easter; there's usually a little bit of a lull, but then we roll right into college graduations; then, right around the corner, there’s high school graduations; and by then Artpark is going, so it’s boom, boom, boom, boom.

“We lost all that. We were two to three weeks into lent when COVID hit. And I could feel like we were just starting to pick back up and it all shut back down.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo put “New York State on PAUSE” in March, prohibiting restaurants from offering indoor or outdoor seating. As spring began, Cuomo announced his “New York Forward” reopening plan, and gradually loosened restrictions on eateries. In Western New York, patrons were first allowed to eat outside, and then permitted to return inside restaurants – but at a lesser capacity.

Barber said local customer support has been more important than ever.

“The community's been great when we were in the curbside world, and I would say they've been great at coming to us; but, no matter how busy we are, we're only 50% of what we could be” because of state restrictions,” he said. “There's times we filled up where people have had to wait for tables, but I also say – even though we’re at 50% – a lot of people are still too nervous to come out. Our takeout business has remained stronger than pre-COVID. So, our takeout has been good. But all of those events – from the festivals, to Artpark events or concerts, to the high school graduations, college graduations, the baseball tournaments that come to Pletcher Road, the soccer (Niagara) Pioneer tournaments at Fort Niagara – all of those were big draws for us.

“I understand we still are getting tourists, (but) you're not getting tourists from as far as normally you could, because of all the travel bans. We get a lot of out-of-towners. The Canadian bridge being closed has been huge to us.

“So, I would say what we have in the winter, we always rely on the locals who come and have been great to us. And’s that what we still have: The locals who are great to us. But in the summer you get that extra something. We don't have that extra something.”

Barber noted hometown patronage has been essential: “The majority of our business since COVID has been our locals. I appreciate their continued support through this.”

Jennifer Pauly said, “Despite the event cancellations and restrictions on capacity for smaller events and programs, we feel that, overall, the community has learned the importance of supporting small businesses and the organizations that make our region a great place to live, work and play.”

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