At the Vermilion City Council meeting on Monday, June 15, 2020 Sandra Coe, Executive Director of the Vermilion Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the Festival of the Fish and said they are celebrating 54 years this year; she hopes. This event has been a tradition in Vermilion for 54 years. Coe has been with the Chamber for 14 years and stated she sees the impact it has on the community, the residents, and the economy.
Coe stated she knows they say 30,000 people come to the festival, but it is a marketing thing. If she told them 10,000 people come to the Festival of the Fish, does it make it exciting? She said of course you build up your festival, and since she has been in the Chamber she thinks it has always been a description that 25,000 to 30,000 people come to the Festival of the Fish over the weekend.
“This is not even close,” said Coe.
In fact, she asked Mr. Goddard once how he knows how many people are at Woollybear and he had a statistical analysis, but they flew Sky Fox 8 over the festival. They do not have that at Festival of the Fish. She can guarantee they do not have any more than 10,000 to 15,000 over the weekend at Festival of the Fish. Sunday she sometimes is begging people to come because she thinks they have more firefighters there fighting the water fight than they do people attending. She just doesn’t know if the attendance is dying on Father’s Day because it is Father’s Day. During Friday or Saturday, of course their attendance is a little bit higher, from 2,000 to 3,000 people a night, according to Coe. She doesn’t have an exact number, but she knows there are not 30,000 people that come into this town over Festival of the Fish weekend.
“Again,” said Coe, “this is a marketing thing. This is to drive it up when you are advertising it. Merchants make money from this, and children for their clubs make money from it, when they set up tables at the festival.”
Coe said she understood cancelling it or postponing it early on because they didn’t know what was going on with COVID, but more information is coming out. More events are starting to happen around them – Rocking on the River in Lorain is going, on and they probably see way more than she does. The Lorain and Erie County Fairs are going on. She hasn’t heard if they’re not, but Lorain County Fair is definitely a full fair and it’s going on. Walking on Wednesday, which is Amherst’s version of Third Thursday, is going on in Amherst, along with their Farmer’s Market. The Vermilion Beach Market in August is going on, from what she read.
Coe said they had to reschedule the festival date one year because of scheduling bands.
“You can’t know how much goes into scheduling the festival,” stated Coe. “You cannot plan a festival in a week. You must give them at least a month – bands longer.”
One of her bands she had to book 1 1⁄2 years in advance, so now they jumped through hoops when she asked if they could possibly play in August because this is important. She said, as they well know, it’s important to the Vermilion economy, but it’s also important to the Vermilion Chamber. The Chamber relies on the income and the revenue from the Festival of the Fish, Woollybear, and from their other events. This is how they keep their doors open.
“This is like telling the merchants in Vermilion, ‘You can open, but you can’t sell anything’, said Coe.
She said they have a Plan A, and B. They know they have to social distance.
Coe said in the past the festival was fenced off – where you would let people in one way and they went out another way. They did this one year and they charged people one dollar to come in that were from out of town and it was free if you were a resident. She didn’t know the purpose, if they were trying to count how many people were coming to the festival, but it didn’t work to charge them. She said they could fence it in – this would not be a problem at all. Would it be a smaller version of the regular festival? Absolutely! She said they will have Crazy Craft and the Lighted Boat Parade – they will try whatever they can do to safely put a festival on, and she thinks they have proven in the past how safe their committee can be with bringing in a festival like Woollybear into Vermilion with no incidents that are detrimental to the community.
She asked the Mayor to give them a chance to have this event and to allow them to show the City a plan that would be safe to have this event in the community, so that the businesses, the Chamber, and the residents who come to Vermilion for a reunion of family, friends, and tradition can carry on for another 54 years. She hoped the Mayor would take this into consideration before they just cancel it because now there is so much confusion out there with people saying, “Is it on, is it off?”
“Give it a chance!” said Coe. “Give us a chance to give the City a plan. I asked this before, just a chance to show you what we can do. Just don’t write us off.”
Coe was hoping to be on the June 29 meeting, or the July meeting, because they would come with a plan. She had an emergency executive board meeting to go over all the details, and she had a strong executive board that had gathered quite a bit of information for her. She wasn’t planning on speaking tonight, but she needed to represent the Chamber and the importance of it.
Coe said she understands safety and does respect it, so she was hoping the City would give them a chance to do this. Hopefully, when she came back to the next Council meeting, she could present something so they could see it and say it works or it doesn’t work. This is kind of what Cedar Point did – they handed in their guidelines. She gets it and knows they can’t have a festival if the Health Department isn’t going to approve it because they come in and check all the vendors right up front. If the Health Department won’t approve it, then of course she knows she can’t have it, but before they cancel everything for the season, can they please just try and postpone the festival and see how it works, and give her a chance.
Council Member Holmes asked what dates she had in mind. Coe said August 21 – 23, and the reason why she picked these dates was because she really wanted these dates. She had to look at what other events were still going on in the area because she must make sure the vendors are available, and she doesn’t step on anyone else’s toes. She mentioned the Lorain County Fair starts on the 23rd, so this would be the last day of the Festival of the Fish, but the committee is even talking about trying two days. She knows this isn’t a normal year, and it’s not going to be like this forever. She said this is also in the plan they’re working on to see if they maybe could try it for two days and have their bands, police everyone, fence it in, and have fun signs made up to remind people about social distancing - and if you don’t feel well, please go home.
She felt that all local people leave for Woollybear and everybody from outside comes in, but she thinks Festival of the Fish are all locals. In fact, when she is counting these people that she sees, she sees the same people over the whole weekend because they’re spending the whole weekend there, so it could be just the same people she is seeing, and it helps the local pubs. They love them at Festival of the Fish because they make quite a bit of money.
“Not only do they get all their supplies locally from advertising dollars they spend, or businesses like the Photojournal that puts in a Souvenir Edition and makes money from it, to Kendra Screen Printing to Szabo Apparel, to everything that is involved into a festival,” said Coe. “There is a lot of money that goes into it and a lot of money is spent locally to help.”
Coe hoped they could come back and present to the City when they had two solid feet to stand on to present something solid to do this. She said they would not have a beer tent; anything that is going to cause people to be under a small area they would remove. They would stagger the vendors and would spread out the craft vendors. They wouldn’t have as many, but everything would be staggered and moved out, and they would have hand sanitizers and hand washing stations as they know the importance of safety.
Mayor Forthofer addressed the issue.
“Tuesday, June 7th, I met in the Vermilion Chamber of Commerce offices with Board President Tiffany Sekeres and Executive Director Sandy Coe,” stated the mayor. “At that time, I informed them that as Safety Director, in the interest of the health of the general population of Vermilion, the City of Vermilion would not support the Fish Festival in 2020.”
“The reason for my decision is the unnecessary health risk to the residents of Vermilion from an assembly of 30,000, 20,000 or 10,000 additional people to the community, which one way or another multiplies the size of the current residents,” said the mayor. “The number of Erie County and Vermilion cases of COVID-19 are low. Merchants have endured an enforced involuntary shut down to contain the spread of the virus. Likewise, residents have been asked to stay at home. To throw away those gains by the influx of a large volume of visitors from communities with much higher presence of the virus would be an unconscionable risk to our area. It would not only affect those present at the festival, but other Vermilion residents who come in contact with those people, etc., etc. Additionally, because most public events in surrounding communities have been cancelled this year, it is my belief that the attendance could be even higher than usual.”
“I am keenly aware of the disappointment of Fish Festival attendees and the impact on local merchants and missed business opportunities for festival vendors,” continued Mayor Forthofer. “However, I am sworn to act in the best interest of Vermilion as a totality. After conference with the Erie County Health Department, it is my conclusion that the risk to the public would be too great for the community we love. My hope is to be able to work with Chamber and our other service organizations to host some smaller, more manageable, events this summer that we can all enjoy safely and plan for Fish Festival 2021.”