August 12, 2020

The National Cherry Festival That Wasn’t

Most (but not all!) events are off . Here’s what to expect this year — and next.
By Craig Manning | June 27, 2020

In any other year, Traverse City would be gearing up for its biggest week of its busiest season. The city’s world-famous National Cherry Festival regularly draws a half-million visitors to the area for festivities ranging from concerts to parades to road races to pie-eating contests. Slated to kick off July 4, 2020, this year’s fest would have marked the event’s 94th, but like thousands of other events around the county, it was officially called off in mid-April due to COVID-19 concerns.

Now that the shock and fallout has somewhat abated, Northern Express rang up Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye to find out what the cancellation has meant for the festival organization and the community at large, what remnants of the festival remain for 2020, and what the future might hold for Traverse City’s biggest summer party.

Northern Express: How is the organization doing as it stares down a summer without a festival?

Kat Paye: We are hurting. We lost 75 percent or our annual income for the year. The National Cherry Festival is a program of the Festival Foundation, which oversees four events each year: the Cherry Festival, the Cherry T Ball Drop, the Leaping Leprechaun 5K, and the Iceman Cometh bike race. The largest revenue generator, of course, is the National Cherry Festival. It's also the largest expense. Over 90 percent of its events are free to the public. And that's very important to note: We lost a lot of revenue, but we also lost a lot of expense with it — but not all the expense. 

So we’re hurting, but so is everyone. We've retained all of our staff, and we are all working to pivot. We're not closing our [organization’s] doors and we're not gone forever. Instead, we’re taking what's most important in our traditions and making them virtual.

Express: What are some of the ways the festival is pivoting this year?

Paye: We’re redefining the festival and trying to celebrate cherries in a different way. We’re doing a virtual pie make and bake with the Grand Traverse Pie Company, where you can pick up your pie kit and join a zoom call where Mike and Denise Busley from the Pie Company will teach you how to make your pie.

We're doing Cherry Festival in a Bag, where you can purchase a Cherry Festival bag on our website, and it comes complete with everything for a cherry pancake breakfast, cherry barbeque sauce from our Great American Picnic, a National Cherry Festival golf ball for the Hole-in-One golf tournament — you name it, it's in there.

The prince and princess program is alive and well with our first-graders. You’ll see the yard signs out throughout the area that say ‘A prince or princess lives here.’ So we're trying to find ways that people can still celebrate the joy of our community and the things that the Cherry Festival does in a different way.

Express: And you’ve got virtual races planned this year, too.

Paye: We are doing what we call the Michigan Harvest Virtual Run Series, and this does not replace the Festival of Races. The Festival of Races is very iconic to our festival, and those races — the 5K, 10K, 15K, and Half Marathon — those are currently tentatively scheduled for Sept. 13. So we're still trying to have that event in as an in-person race, and that is still contingent upon approval from Peninsula Township in the City of Traverse City. We've been working on that since April.

The Harvest Virtual Run Series, though, is a really cool opportunity to build your race length throughout the process. The Cherry Run is a 5K. The Apple Dash is a 5K or 10K. The Hop Trot is a 5K or a 15K. And in the Grape Stomp, you can to a 5K or a half marathon. There’s one each month, from July through October, and over those four months, you can build up your endurance and aim toward the longer races. The outdoors are not closed, and we want to encourage health and wellness. That’s just part of our mission at the foundation.

Express: What are some of the community impacts of canceling the Cherry Festival?

Paye: The economic impact of the National Cherry Festival to the Traverse City community is about $26 million. Since we’re a nonprofit, we gave $140,000 back to the community in donations in 2019. Not having a festival means we can't even come close to that in 2020. There's a lot of organizations that rely on us as their big fundraiser through our Community Share program. They volunteer for us during the festival; we pay their organization. That equates to a lot of money that those organizations won't have this year. Some of those groups include Norte, UN-Cats Feline Rescue, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, you name it. There are 40-some groups that that volunteer for us. Having to tell those people that we would not be able to move forward with the festival this year was heartbreaking.

Among our vendors, we were definitely hit with a few naysayers that felt like we had just killed their businesses. Those are hard words to hear, but we know some of our vendors have been heavily devastated by this situation. Arnold’s Amusements is a big one; they are from Traverse City, and they've been our carnival vendor for 30 or 40 years. They lost almost all their business for the summer, because that’s what they do: rides at festivals. The food trucks that you typically see at the Open Space — the Gibby’s Group, Steve’s Smokin’ BBQ — we know that this is hurting them. We called all of our vendors the night before we made the cancelation because we wanted to make sure they were aware of our decision and didn’t read it in the news.

Express: What kind of reception have you gotten from the public, both in response to the Cherry Festival cancelation and to the revamped events?

Paye: We’ve been hearing a lot of positivity since day one. And I was in big fear of making the announcement. While in our hearts and minds we knew it was the right thing to do, it was also so personally devastating. Every staff member we have here, they grew up in Traverse City. Everyone here is a graduate of Traverse City Central High School, Traverse City West, or St. Francis. So this is a very homegrown office, and the festival is extremely personal to all of us. We all have these great memories of the festival. For me personally, this would have been my 30th year.

But cherries are still here. They aren’t going anywhere. And I think the community has gotten on board with that mindset. We’ve had a great response. We’re doing a virtual Very Cherry Porch Parade, and we had over 40 porches sign up within the first 48 hours of putting it out there. The prince and princess program has been amazing. The kids have a Prince and Princess Power Hour every week, where they do an activity with our queen or our director. We've definitely tried to keep the kids engaged because they don't understand entirely why their lives have changed.

Express: So there will still be a Cherry Queen this year?

Paye: Our current queen, Sierra Moore, will reign until a new one is crowned in 2021. She’ll be the first queen in history to do two years, but it made sense. We can’t have a coronation. We can’t have a selection weekend where we put 25 young women together. So she’s going to reign another year and she was OK with that, in part because she didn't have a ton of the usual Cherry Queen experiences this year because things were canceled.

Express: In retrospect, how do you feel about the decision to cancel Cherry Festival, given that it seems like a lot of people are coming north anyway?

Paye: Traverse City is a beautiful place, so of course people are going to come here. In April, we were 90 days out, and we were trying to make the best decision at the time with the information we had. We had to let emotion take a backseat and go to the data. And ultimately, it was the safety piece [that drove our decision]. We have over 500,000 visitors [in Traverse City] over the eight days of Cherry Festival. How do we [during a pandemic in April] encourage that kind of visitorship to Traverse City when we don't know what things will look like in July?

So no, we do not regret our decision. We’re just trying to look at the opportunity and make the best of it and figure out how to move forward. Because we've been around for 94 years. This organization has lived through so much. There wasn’t a festival from 1942 to 1947 due to the Great Depression and World War II, but it still moved forward. The festival found a way back from that, so we're good. We just have to figure out how to get through the next whatever timeframe until we can safely get back to normal.

Express: What’s the plan for 2021?

Paye: Oh, we’re planning for a festival. We have the United States Air Force Thunderbirds (pictured above) scheduled already, because we work on air show two years in advance. And the good news is we already have a lot of next year planned because we did it this year. We're just moving a lot of our plans from the 2020 festival forward. So we open on July 3, 2021, and our intention is to have our traditional events next year.

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