High gas prices, sluggish economy hurting small-town festivals

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 17, 2005

BAINBRIDGE (AP) - Something was missing at the Festival of Leaves - people.

Bainbridge, a town about 60 miles south of Columbus, was swollen to several times its usual size (population 1,042) Saturday for the leaves festival, but lines for food and amusement rides were short.

With high gasoline prices and Ohio's lackluster economy, it's been an off year for festival organizers across the state.

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It's hurting civic pride, as well as the vendors who bank on small-town celebrations to make a living or earn a few extra bucks.

‘‘It's slow,'' said Monica Copher, who sold Slush Puppies and pumpkin pies in Bainbridge.

‘‘This is usually one of the best festivals we do, but we figure this weekend it's the gas (prices),'' Copher said.

Richard Gorrell attended the festival with his 4-year-old daughter, Sadiee, but he didn't spend much.

‘‘Things are tight. I don't know how people do it these days,'' said Gorrell, a self-employed contractor from South Salem.

Phyllis Hendrix, president of the Ohio Festivals and Events Association, said festivals are feeling the pinch this year.

Some festivals might have to dip into their cash carryovers to cover small losses. Others will consider increasing fees or cutting back some features to stay in the black next year, Hendrix said.

Not even the hallowed Circleville Pumpkin Show, which begins Wednesday and is billed as the largest festival in Ohio, is immune from the worries of the cash-conscious.

The show struggled financially in the early part of the decade, but broke even last year after it increased fees for vendors and made some minor cutbacks, said Dorcas Morrow, the festival's treasurer.

Kids found it harder to wheedle money out of their parents at the Marion Popcorn Festival last month.

‘‘Ride sales were particularly down,'' said Hendrix, who also is sponsorship chairwoman of the late-summer staple in downtown Marion, about 50 miles north of Columbus. ‘‘That was one area where people probably were forced to cut back.''

After recording a $1,812 loss on last year's event despite $143,250 in revenue, organizers think this year's 25th anniversary festival will break even thanks to larger corporate donations, Hendrix said.

The signature events of small-town pride are in no danger of disappearing, she said.

‘‘Festivals are the kind of thing that gets in your blood. Once you start doing them, you go forever. It's a tradition in Ohio,'' Hendrix said.