The 40th anniversary of Canal Fest of the Tonawandas will have to wait.
After a Thursday night meeting among board members, Canal Fest President Peter Chenier Jr. and Vice President Rick Maier announced Friday the eight-day festival would not be held this summer. A rebranding and restructuring of the warm-weather staple, which draws as many as 400,000 visitors and is a boon to nearby businesses, will be conducted before the festival's return in July 2024.
Canal Fest, a collaborative effort among nonprofit organizations to connect the cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic but returned last year, with the exception of the parade.
"In our hearts, we're extremely sad we can't do it," Maier said of Friday's announcement. "But in our minds, it would not have been wise to do."
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Finances were a major part of the decision, said Maier, who has been involved with the festival for more than two decades. The Canal Fest Corp. leadership, a 15-member board, must raise roughly $200,000 each year to present the festival, which goes toward insurance, both cities, entertainment and the parade, among other expenses, Maier explained.
At the event's founding, more than 50 community nonprofits – fire halls, churches, community centers and so on – helped raise money. That number is barely double digits now, Maier said. He added that organizers ideally would have one-third of the necessary budget in the bank before fundraising efforts, but last year began with just $10,000, or 5%.
A sharp decline in interest in the Canal Fest parade was another signal to regroup, Maier said. What Maier said was once the second-biggest parade in the state – to only the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City – saw only one registrant ahead of last year's deadline and no registrants as of Friday's announcement.
The Canal Fest vice president said next year's festival may be geared more toward the community's for-profit businesses, and its length could be reduced to as few as three days. Maier believed a shorter festival might ease staffing and other challenges facing the nonprofits as well, which could lead to greater participation. A community play area for children could replace rides, he said. Feedback from monthly public meetings and discussion among board members are expected to help shape the festival's future.
In the meantime, local businesses are reacting to the prospect of a quieter summer.
Greg Stennis, owner of Dwyer's Irish Pub in North Tonawanda, said his bar-restaurant – located in the thick of the festival – does three times the business during Canal Fest than on a regular day. He said the exposure and marketing opportunities of taking part were immense, too, if harder to quantify. Success during the peak summer event in the Tonawandas is crucial because of the steep drop-off that ensues.
"When September hits, it's like flipping a switch," Stennis said. "Everything dies down in September."
This year, vendors are back in full swing, but new challenges await. Costs are up, inflation is taking a larger chunk of customers' wallets and labor is still scarce.
Austin Tylec, the mayor of North Tonawanda, said he was sad to hear about Canal Fest's cancellation but was hoping to keep key festival elements alive. He said Friday that he's communicating with Canal Fest leadership, business owners and community members about the possibility of hosting the art show and car show this summer.
"We are optimistic about how both Tonawandas and Canal Fest can re-envision this eight-day event next year," Tylec said, "and make it bigger and better."
Stennis said he's been asked to be the grand marshal for the Canal Fest parade for each of the last four years – but the parade has been shelved each time. He joked Friday that the festival's recent downturn is the result of his selection. "Maybe I'm the bad-luck omen," he said.
Stennis added that it's possible that the community has taken the festival for granted.
"I would think most cities or towns would kill for an event like this," he said.