By Ron Giofu
If the Windsor-Essex (WE) Harvest Festival returns in 2017, it won’t be run by the town of Amherstburg.
And if there is a festival in early September at Fort Malden National Historic Site, there is still a chance it could be the return of the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival.
Councillor Rick Fryer made the motion not to proceed with the Harvest Festival as a town event, though said he would support the town assisting another organizer now that the Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce (ACOC) has decided not to organize it again.
“Right now, I’m saying we are not involved with it. We weren’t before,” said Fryer.
Fryer also referenced a letter council received from members of the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival committee wondering why they were not contacted before council received a report suggesting the town take over organizing the Harvest Festival. Fryer said he didn’t want to “push the wine festival away” and also didn’t want to burden town staff with the job of organizing another Harvest Festival.
According to Fryer, many municipalities lose money when they try to organize such events.
Councillor Jason Lavigne said he was in favour of supporting organizations putting on events, but that the town shouldn’t be putting events on themselves.
“The town should not be in the event-running business,” said Lavigne.
Lavigne asked “why are the (ACOC) getting out of running the festival?” and believed the town should turn to the wine festival organizers to give them the opportunity to bring back their event for that weekend.
“The Shores of Erie Wine Festival is way better than us. I guarantee you that,” he said, regarding the ability to run festivals.
“To me the biggest red flag is when the Chamber of Commerce decided not to do (the Harvest Festival) again after one year,” added Councillor Joan Courtney. “I worry about that.”
Courtney said she agreed with the beliefs of both Fryer and Lavigne.
Councillor Leo Meloche believed the decision to not have the town take over the Harvest Festival came too quickly.
“I’m concerned about making a quick decision,” he said. “This all came quickly to all of us. I think we should look at it.”
Meloche questioned whether there were benefits to the town that were not being taken into consideration and that, while he has concerns over cost and liability, he wanted to keep an open mind.
“I think this proposal should be looked at in more depth than writing it off so quickly,” said Meloche, adding discussions with Shores of Erie International Wine Festival committee members should be part of the process.
Paul Mersch, a board member with the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival committee, said they want a festival in town the second weekend in September and indicated it could be the wine festival.
“There is some intent of us coming back if all goes well in the court case,” he said.
Mersch said wine festival committee members were shocked when the town didn’t approach them with their report about the Harvest Festival, adding wine festival volunteers were told the Harvest Festival was a one-year event. The ACOC issued a letter in late October stating they would not run a 2017 Harvest Festival.
While there is interest in making a comeback, Mersch acknowledged “can we do it is a different question.” There were talks about a combined Harvest Festival and wine festival committee, he noted.
The letter the wine festival committee sent to council questioned why no one approached them in the one month since the ACOC said they wouldn’t present another Harvest Festival. The committee also stated it provided logistical support to the Harvest Festival and rented equipment to them “at a dramatically reduced rate.”
The wine festival committee also stated it has pumped thousands into the local economy and has donated thousands to various charities and causes.
“In reading the agenda, we saw on Oct. 28 the Chamber decided running a festival was not their mandate,” the wine festival’s letter states. “On Nov. 7, the report was filed from John Miceli CEO and Anne Rota, manager of tourism and culture. Could someone not have found the time in one month to contact us out of respect for everything the Shores of Erie Wine Festival has done for our town?”
Karen Gyorgy, chair of the Shores of Erie Wine Festival committee, did state they want an event of some sort that weekend and praised the organizers of the Harvest Festival.
“Kudos to the town, Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce and TWEPI (Tourism Windsor-Essex Pelee Island),” said Gyorgy. “Volunteers put together a festival in very little time. For this they should be congratulated.”
Gyorgy said their only question was why the wine festival were not asked or approached about their intention before the report went before town council.
“We fully support festivals and tourism,” she said. “Unfortunately at this time, we were unable to make commitments.”
Lynnette Bain, vice president of tourism programs and development with TWEPI, appeared before council and said food and drink events are job creators and a growing industry. Bain spoke highly of the Harvest Festival and its “Feast On!” designation which meant they had at least 50 per cent of locally sourced product.
“WE Harvest Festival has the potential to be a tourist driver,” she said, “not a tourist enhancer.”
Bain added her belief that “town administration has the ability and skill to run the event” and that the Harvest Festival has the potential to get to the level of the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival.
According to a report from CAO John Miceli, the 2016 WE Harvest Festival drew 4,834 people. Original estimates of attendance by organizers was 8,000 people.
There were 24 vendors with eight being from Amherstburg, Miceli’s report stated, with 350 volunteers being used. He stated total vendor sales were over $146,000.
The event was highly endorsed by South West Ontario Tourism Corporation, stated Miceli, under the Ministry of Tourism, Recreation and Sport, the Ontario Culinary Alliance and Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island with it also being recognized as “an important regional economic driver.”
“Through statistical data provided from the event, it was reported that businesses and vendors within the festival grounds realized substantial financial growth and brand recognition,” said Miceli.
Miceli added that other downtown establishments as well as other “contracted services” gained sales before and after the event.
“It is highly unlikely that an event such as the WE Harvest will occur in 2017 without Town involvement,” the CAO wrote. “This is understandable with the outstanding litigation of the Wine Festival and the Chamber’s recent decision not to move forward with the event in 2017. In light of this information, council’s decision is critical. This decision will play an important role in reaffirming to residents, stakeholders and investors the Town is committed to developing an alternative economy for improving quality of life for current and future residents of the Town through the promotion of tourism.”
Miceli added: “The Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model (TREIM) is a measure used by the Ministry of Tourism, Recreation and Sport for economic impact. On a recorded 4,834 visitors, the economic impact in Ontario from the event realized $436,490 for total spending. This would include revenue and taxes on goods, gas, food & drink, accommodations, contracted fees etc. Locally, the TREIM measured the Direct GDP for our region as $193,783 and the Direct Labour benefit realized was $129,298. Should Council proceed with WE Harvest these dollars will continue to be realized in the locally economy at little or no cost to the ratepayer. This is a significant contribution to the local economy for a three-day event and will have a multiplier effect should the Town increase attendance the number of visitors to the event.”
ACOC president Carolyn Davies told the RTT Friday night she was hoping the town would take the event on.
“We want to keep the spot open for Amherstburg,” said Davies. “There were a lot of people competing for that time slot.”
The festival is good for economic development and tourism, she believed.
Davies said the ACOC’s mandate is to support businesses and “give them a strong foothold.” She indicated the ACOC is looking at supporting businesses in other ways, including finding ways for businesses to combat rising hydro costs.
Chris Gibb, a co-chair of the 2016 WE Harvest Festival, said it was “a great success” and wanted council to agree to take on the event.
“Harvest Fest gave local restaurants a chance to reach an audience they might not be able to reach. Our local wineries, distilleries, and craft breweries raved about the great exposure they received,” said Gibb. “Most importantly, by bringing people to Amherstburg to visit an event like Harvest Fest, it gives us a chance to show what a wonderful town we have and who knows, maybe a house is built or sold because of a visit to an event like this? Maybe people come back to visit a restaurant or shop they saw while at Harvest Fest, maybe Wolfhead Distillery increases employment because of increased sales.”
Gibb believed issues of liability could be addressed through a variety of steps.
“I was in charge of security last year and some of the procedures we implemented helped minimize the risk we took on,” said Gibb. “Not allowing anyone under 19 at the event, checking ID of both patrons and vendors, and working closely with the Amherstburg police were all ways to try and keep risks to a minimum.”
Gibb called the Harvest Festival “a true gem for Amherstburg” and said thousands of residents saw the value in it. He co-chaired the event with Aldo DiCarlo, the town’s mayor. DiCarlo was not in attendance at Monday night’s meeting.