Community

The coronavirus pandemic has forced organizers of Harvest Homecoming, an annual festival held in New Albany, to cancel the event for the first time in its history. With the festival drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the city each year, officials and local merchants are assessing the impact of the loss.

New Albany normally has a quaint, quiet feel to it. For all its historic downtown district has to offer, it’s far from what one would call a buzzing metropolis. But for one week in October, that all changes. Harvest Homecoming board chairman Courtney Lewis calls the festival the best in the area, with up to half a million people packing into the city’s core.

“We build a city inside of a city for four days for everyone to come enjoy with food and crafts and rides and events and as much family friendly entertainment for as little to no cost as possible for our community,” she said.

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said that he can’t remember a time where he missed the festival in his life. Each year, like countless others in the city, he heads down to some of the more popular booths, including those that serve corn on the cob, chicken and dumplings, and pork chop sandwiches.

Over the decades, Harvest has continued to grow into something that gives the city its own unique identity, he said.

“We have a lot of people that make it up to visit us every year and have a make that a family vacation, and it brings a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of joy and a lot of camaraderie to the people of our city,” Gahan said.

The “homecoming” aspect of the week was something highlighted by the mayor and organizers. Many people who have moved away see the event as an opportunity to catch up with old friends and family.

New Albany native Reid Milam, who now lives in Cincinnati, is one of them.

“I think it’s just kind of reconnecting with all the people I haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. “Everyone comes back for Harvest, so I get to see all the friends and family I haven’t seen since I’ve been away.”

Due to the pandemic, organizers agreed to call off this year’s event, which would’ve been the 52nd. It was a tough call that involved tears, Lewis said, but one that was necessary.

The most immediate concern behind the decision was that of public health. More specifically, the transformation of downtown is a feat pulled off by a team of volunteers, many of whom fall into at-risk categories for COVID-19, Lewis noted.

Aside from that, she worried that vendors would pour significant amounts of time and money into planning, only for the event to be cancelled later in the year.

“People plan and prepare for what they’re going to do at the festival from a vendor perspective for months,” she said. “So do we wait until the last minute when all of those vendors have put out the money to buy their product or get their food orders in, and then they’re just out of luck?”

The cancellation means that all the visitors and dollars that would follow will no longer be injected into the local economy. For some businesses, the boost is crucial to staying afloat. It isn’t uncommon for shops to pay significant chunks of their operational costs for year with money earned during Harvest.

Bradley Fair, vice president of Develop New Albany, said that this will only compound the financial strain put on local merchants over the past few months due to closures and other major event postponements.

“They’re used to that income,” he said. “They’re used to that money. They’ve already got 60 to 90 days of profit loss or no profit at all because of the pandemic, and now we’re extending a negative sales period into the fall for them as well.”

According to Gahan, the city’s popular July 3 firework celebration is also being postponed, though he hopes to move forward with the event later in the year.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.