NELSONVILLE — This year, the hills of northern Athens County will not be filled with the sounds of carnival rides and the smell of fair food for the annual Parade of the Hills.
The festival, which usually occurs in late August, has been canceled by the Parade of the Hills Fair Board as of Thursday, May 28.
“It is with heavy hearts we announce the cancellation of the 2020 Nelsonville Parade of the Hills festival and events due to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Craig Joyce and John Johnson, co-chairmen of the board. “After speaking with government health officials, we all agree that moving forward with the festival in these uncertain times would be too risky.”
Earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Health issued a stay-at-home order for all individuals unless they were an essential worker or going out for supplies. Areas of the state are beginning to reopen, with a few areas such as daycare centers to still open later this month.
This isn’t the first cancellation for August events — Bounty on the Bricks was canceled earlier this Spring and the Athens County Fairboard announced that it would carry on with junior fair activities and showings, but all rides and midway attractions would not be allowed. The Ohio Pawpaw Festival, scheduled for Sept. 11-13, is currently not selling tickets and main organizer Chris Chmiel noted on the Facebook page that a decision on whether to hold it would come by the end of June.
One major issue presented by the cancellation of these events is how it may effect vendors who depend on these events for the majority of their income. The Parade of the Hills’ Board letter apologized to the regular vendors for the cancellation.
“We also recognize the financial struggles that the pandemic has caused for many of our business and individual supports, and we cannot in good conscience ask them for support during these difficult times,” the co-chairmen wrote. “We are currently working with our vendors and entertainment so we can offer a great and entertaining festival next year.”
For Damon Krane, owner/operator of the Hot Potato Food Truck (which is currently not operating) and president of the Athens Mobile Vending Association, the city of Athens has not done enough to allow for increased capacity food trucks could have maintained during the stay-at-home order.
“Like the cliche says, the three most important factors in business are ‘location, location, location’ — and that’s never truer than when it comes to mobile vending,” Krane said. “Food trucks can’t compete with brick-and-mortar restaurants when it comes to providing customers with climate-controlled indoor seating and table service. But by being mobile we can reach crowds of people looking for a quick and delicious outdoor or to-go meal wherever those crowds have gathered.”
Krane has long maintained that the city should allow for mobile vendors to be more mobile, and thus meet their true potential. He cited that as a base reason for why vendors based out of Athens have been seeing a hit to their wallets in recent years, but noted that Athens City Council Member Sam Crowl’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Mobile Vending and the Athens Mobile Vending Association have released a series of recommendations that Krane believes would help the local food scene, economy and tourism.
“When we vendors spent all of 2018 and 2019 telling Athens city officials we needed access to be allowed to be mobile enough to access a better location, we weren’t kidding,” Krane said. “During 2018 and 2019, the Athenie Weenie went out of business; The Cajun Clucker and Kernel Crunch both relocated their businesses outside of Athens County; the Burrito Buggy was sold to its third owner, after already having been sold to its second owner in 2010; Ali Baba’s and Nixtamalized both had to scale back their operations; Holy Guacamole, Hot Potato, Dr. May’s Thai Kitchen, and OMG! Rotisserie all stopped vending on Union St; and Hot Potato finally ceased operating altogether, at least for the time being.”
Krane explained that festivals cost food truck operators a lot — he noted that vendors at festivals must make a high volume of food in a short period of time, balanced on top of the cost of the food, cost of labor and festival fees.
“As a result, the only vendors who can make a festival-focused business model work are those who are guaranteed to have high sales at every single festival that doesn’t get rained out,” Krane said. “That means serving the most ubiquitous, familiar menu items like pizza, french fries, hot dogs and funnel cakes... So festival-focused vendors can survive, but usually only at the cost of sacrificing diversity and innovation.”
He noted that his business only draws a high enough volume of customers to make a profit at certain festivals, given the all-vegetarian menu featuring overloaded twice-baked potatoes and other potato-based entrees.
“Our food has won awards from Athens News readers and the Ohio Pawpaw Festival,” Krane said. “So we’re a smashing success at the Nelsonville Music Festival, but we’re also an absolute failure at the Athens County Fair and most other festivals. Our menu isn’t for everybody — at least not yet.”