June 19, 2014

Modesto-area events afloat despite demise of Stockton Asparagus Festival

When the lingering effects of the economic downturn added the Stockton Asparagus Festival to its victim list, it called into question the financial health of similar events in the greater Modesto area.

When the lingering effects of the economic downturn added one of the region’s longest-running festivals to its victim list, it called into question the financial health of similar events in the greater Modesto area.

Organizers of the Stockton Asparagus Festival announced last week that the event had celebrated its 29th and final season in April, doomed by a loss of finances due to dwindling attendance, increased costs and a phasing out of the subsidy from the bankrupt city of Stockton. A 10-member board voted unanimously to end the annual event, which featured live music, deep-fried asparagus and asparagus-eating competitions.

Two years ago, the festival attracted 104,000 people, but this year, just 55,000 turned out, according to The Associated Press, a tally partially hampered by rain.

While every city in the Valley was sent reeling when the economy nose-dived in the late 2000s, organizers of some of the major festivals in the Modesto and Mother Lode regions report that their events will march on – although some are warily watching their bottom lines.

The city of Riverbank will take over that community’s signature event, the Riverbank Cheese & Wine Exposition, for the first time this October. That festival previously was organized by the city’s chamber of commerce and, most recently, the Riverbank Rotary Club. Rotary members asked the city to take over this year, according to City Manager Jill Anderson.

While finances are “definitely tight,” Anderson said, the City Council agreed to run the festival because it’s an iconic event, “something the community in and around Riverbank has grown to love.”

Still, once the expo is over this fall, the city will re-evaluate its involvement, she said.

“That being said, Sue (Fitzpatrick, director of parks and recreation), who is leading this on behalf of the city, is very good at making a dollar stretch,” Anderson said. “We will evaluate at the conclusion of the event, (but) we’re very optimistic that we can break even or better.”

Fitzpatrick said the city plans to spruce up the event and expand its offerings this year.

The Cheese & Wine Exposition attracted 100,000 people a year in its heyday, Fitzpatrick said, but – as with the Asparagus Festival – attendance has dwindled over the past few years. The expo now gets about 10,000 a day over the two-day event, with the economic downfall the likely cause. But the addition of more festivals across the region might also be a factor.

“As they proliferate, maybe they become less special,” she said.

Modesto saw the completion of the 19th annual Family Cycling Festival in May, run through the city’s Rideshare program. According to Rideshare Coordinator Megan Distaso, there are discussions each year at the end of the event to evaluate its financial health.

“There have been years where funding was tight, but so far, we have not had to cancel,” Distaso said. Attendance has remained steady through the years, with the most recent event drawing more than 3,000 people.

Cycling fest funding comes from Rideshare grants and charitable donations, she said, including help from the Stanislaus County Bicycle Club, Kiwanis Club of North Modesto and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Doctors Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center have each donated bike helmets for children, given out for free each year.

Another major area attraction is the Oakdale Chocolate Festival, sponsored by the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce, also held each May. According to chamber CEO Mary Guardiola, attendance there has remained steady throughout the years, although organizers did see a drop-off among vendors when the economy took its downturn.

The chamber funds the festival through vendor fees and admission, and the event attracts 60,000 to 70,000 visitors annually, Guardiola said. About three or four years ago, she had fewer vendors signing on, but this year, those numbers were back up.

She lamented the loss of the asparagus festival, especially since, 22 years ago, organizers patterned the Oakdale Chocolate Festival after the then-successful Stockton event.

In Tuolumne County, numerous festivals and other similar events go on throughout the year, but because not all their financial “eggs are in one basket,” none currently is threatened, according to Nanci Sikes, executive director for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.

The visitors bureau helps by promoting the events, but does not fund them, she said. Some of the larger draws, like the annual Sonora Celtic Faire and All Hallows Fantasy Faire, are sponsored privately. Another big event, the Mother Lode Round-Up, is put on by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse. Some other fests get funds from the California parks system.

“It really is a mixed bag,” Sikes said.

She also is saddened by the loss of the Stockton Asparagus Festival.

“It’s one of those iconic events, it’s what you call a signature event – so identifiable with the community,” Sikes said. “I truly hope they find someone to carry this on – it’s a wonderful event.”

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