In 24 days, the city of West Point will welcome its biggest annual event with the return of the Prairie Arts Festival after a one-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least that’s the plan for now.
As COVID cases spike — on Wednesday, the state health department reported 4,412 cases, the second time this week the daily cases have reached an all-time high in the state — West Point Main Street Director Lisa Klutts is keeping an eye on the numbers while awaiting further guidance from city and state officials.
“We haven’t made any decisions yet,” Klutts said. “We are very much aware of the situation and we’re talking to the mayor to make sure we’re on the same page. We’ve seen the numbers and we’re watching them closely. We’re having conversations with our (emergency management) director and the hospital. But until we have some clear direction, our plan is to have the festival and have it safely.”
The Prairie Arts Festival is one of several large events scheduled in the Golden Triangle for September and early October for which the status may be threatened by the resurgence of the pandemic that forced the events to be canceled last year.
Organizers say, for the present at least, there are no plans to cancel or reschedule.
Among those events is the Columbus Market Street Festival, scheduled for Sept. 17-18.
“Our plan is to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Market Street Festival,” Main Street Columbus Director Barbara Bigelow said. “We’ve been trying to celebrate the 25th anniversary for two years now.”
Last year’s Market Street Festival was canceled and the 2021 festival, scheduled for May, was rescheduled for
September — all because of COVID.
Now, with just five weeks remaining before the event, Bigelow and festival director Amber Brislin are proceeding with plans, while awaiting guidance from local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There aren’t any local or state ordinances or restrictions in place now, so we’re continuing with our preparations,” Bigelow said. “It’s a crazy situation.”
Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin said he’s watching the COVID situation carefully.
“With these events coming up, we are in discussion with the organizers to do what we can to help them make a wise decision,” Gaskin said. “We’ll be talking with Barbara and Main Street about their plans. It’s a very important event, but I still think we have to put health first.”
Brislin said holding the festival safely remains the goal.
“Market Street is an important event, not just for the Main Street organization, but for the community, the vendors and the local economy,” Brislin said. “But nothing is more important than safety. That’s our priority, but we’ve learned that things can change very fast. We’re hopeful. It’s a big production and there’s so much that has to be done between now and Sept. 17. We have to continue with those preparations.”
Both Klutts and Bigelow rely on the festivals for a major part of their budgets. The loss of the festival can jeopardize other Main Street events and activities.
“Like a business, we have bills to pay and money that we’ve spent, a lot of which isn’t refundable,” Bigelow said. “This is, by far, our biggest fundraiser and we absolutely rely on those proceeds to be able to provide all the things we do to make our downtown attractive and successful. The economic benefits to the city are big, too. I remember last year, when we told the mayor we were going to have to cancel, you could see his face drop. He knew what it meant.”
Klutts said the decision to cancel last year’s Prairie Arts Festival was easy compared to the decision that might have to be made this year.
“At least we had some time then,” she said. “Now, it’s right around the corner. We’ve spent so much of our budget for the festival already and that’s money we probably can’t get back. It’s just an impossible situation. I’ll tell you: I’m not planning anything else this year. There’s just too much uncertainty.”
Main Street Starkville Director Paige Watson said no decisions have been made about the status of the Cotton District Arts Festival, scheduled for Oct. 2.
“One of the big changes we’ve made because of COVID is that we’re doing everything on an eight-week schedule,” Watson said. “Because of that, we’ve not really had any discussions about what we’ll do with the festival, but we’ll definitely be turning our attention to that and having the discussions we need to make the right decision.”
Organizers of Bulldog Bash, an annual concert sponsored by the Mississippi State University Student Association scheduled for Sept. 7, did not respond to requests for information on the status of the concert. But Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said there is some discussion about postponing the event until November.
One event that isn’t likely to be affected is the Black Prairie Blues Festival in West Point. In years past, the festival was held the Friday before Labor Day, but festival director Deborah Mansfield said the event already has been moved to February.
“Our decision to move the date didn’t have anything to do with COVID,” Mansfield said. “We moved the date to February to coincide with Black History Month, so other than some fundraising events for our blues museum, we don’t have any decisions to make about COVID now. Our fundraisers are smaller events, usually around 50 people. We’ll mask up, have social distancing and continue with them unless we’re told we can’t.”
Spruill said Starkville will collaborate with event organizers as the discussions continue.
“We’ve always had a good working relationship with these events,” said Spruill, acknowledging the city could act unilaterally to cancel events by revoking city-issue permits if an agreement with event organizers can’t be made. “I really don’t see that happening, though. I think we have a mutual understanding of the concerns for the community. We both want to make the right decision for the community.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]