By SHERIDAN CYR
It may seem early to begin thinking about the end-of-September festival, but for town officials organizing the Apple Harvest Festival is a year-long effort. The AHF supervisory committee, a town-operated entity, starts the planning for next year’s festival before the final fritter is eaten.
The challenge was even bigger this year as the town prepares to celebrate the “Golden and Delicious” 50th year celebration, but the process is never easy. Many recall a time not too long ago—2004, to be exact—when the festival underwent quite some turmoil, and even could have been put to rest entirely if the Town of Southington hadn’t stepped up to the plate.
That was the year that there was uproar from locals; problems with the management; protests from downtown merchants; concern that the festival would be moved from the Town Green to West Street; and worries that the move could threaten the traditional family-oriented atmosphere. After 35 years, chamber of commerce officials finally surrendered.
“It just wasn’t feasible economically for the Southington Chamber of Commerce to run the festival on its own,” recalled Chamber board of directors chair, Matt O’Keefe. “The chamber’s mission is to support local businesses. As a term of resources, for us to be able to focus on the local business community, running the festival was too much for us to do.”
In 2004, the Chamber reached out to Daniels Productions, a company that would run the festival with the chamber’s assistance. O’Keefe explained the company and the chamber agreed to a multiyear contract, but the Chamber wanted the option to terminate the contract if they chose to after the first year. The production company put in the contract that, if the chamber did terminate the contract, they could not pick back up in running the festival again after that first year for a certain amount of time.
“It was a mutual covenant. It didn’t work out the way we thought it would that first year, and we terminated the contract,” said O’Keefe. “At that time, we approached the town with options. We could move the festival to a new location, or perhaps the town could take over running it.”
The alternative location was a 10-15 acre parcel of farm land off of West Street, adjacent to the old Hartford Insurance buildings, offered for one-time use by the Zigmon Duksa family. As a safeguard, the Apple Harvest Committee also sought and was given approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals to hold the festival in its original location at the Town Green.
It was reported in local papers in 2004 that locals stormed the Town Council chambers and argued that the right location for the festival was the Town Green.
The mounting problems even had some locals wondering about the future of the festival. Would 2004 mark the end of an era or just a case of growing pains?
“The chamber felt [the West Street location] would promote more growth for the event. The Chamber’s decision aroused much emotion among business people, nonprofits and clubs, which welcome the crowd downtown and rely on its revenue for vital income,” wrote one Southington Observer reporter in the July 23, 2004 edition. “Some feel that moving the festival out of town would severely limit visitors to the First Congregational Church’s craft fair, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church’s famous apple fritters booth, and the Elks and American Legion clubs.”
Ultimately, the town took over the reins for the festival in 2005, but the Chamber made sure to offer support and continue to be a part of the festival as a sponsor. As a result, the event quickly transformed into a community partnership between the business community, residents, town officials…and a small army of volunteers.
“This year’s festival will be unlike all the others before it,” one reporter wrote in the Observer’s Sept. 23, 2004 edition. “It will mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. This will be the last festival held under the auspices of the Greater Southington Chamber of Commerce.”
In March of 2005, the Town Council appointed John Ryan as the festival director, and hired Solutions Public Relations and Marketing of Middletown to find festival sponsors. Ryan told an Observer reporter the festival had “lost its cohesiveness in recent years” and that there was an “unbelievable amount of excitement and energy” towards that year’s big event.
“I think I can bring people together, and focus on building bridges with other important town organizations like the Congregational Church, the Elks and the American Legion,” Ryan said in 2005.
The Apple Harvest Festival supervisory committee was formed to organize the festival, with Town Councilors Cheryl Lounsbury (R) and Chris Palmieri (D) appointed as chair and vice chair, respectively.
“We had great people involved at the time who knew they didn’t want the festival to go away,” said Lounsbury. “What we tried to do was build it up so that it would be self-supportive. The town didn’t have to make money; just pay the bills. We did not want to run it at the taxpayers’ expense.”
She recalled that the committee was able to build upon the previous festival, so securing vendors wasn’t a difficult task. “I think the vision and the process was what it needed to be at the time,” she said.
Palmieri said one of the biggest changes to the festival during the transition was the elimination of the token system. Prior, festival-goers would have to wait in line to get tokens, which could then be used for purchasing vendor items. This change helped both vendors and attendees. The AHF supervisory committee also took over beverage sales exclusively to help fund the festival.
“One of the major things I’m proud of is that many of the expenses are not included in the town budget, including overtime for police, Parks and Recreation, Fire Department and the Health Department,” said Palmieri. Those costs are included in the operating budget, at no cost to taxpayers.
“We knew the festival was important to residents, and we are proud of it,” Palmieri said. “It brings people in to town, they get a taste of our restaurants and shops, and hopefully, they return another day. We also are able to give back to organizations in town through the festival; for example, we make donations to Southington Community Services, and offer two scholarships to graduating Southington High School seniors.”
Even though the annual Apple Harvest Festival faced some growing pains, it continues to draw in thousands of attendees year after year, commemorating tradition and creating traditions for families and friends.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.