The board of directors of the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce has changed course on its plans for the 114th Rhododendron Festival and has suspended the event for the second year in a row. The event was scheduled for its traditional date, the third weekend of May, May 12 to 16, 2021.
“People missed the point that we were moving forward with cautious optimism when we announced that our first step was the cancelation of Rhody Court since that’s the earliest aspect of the festival and demanded an early decision,” said Chamber president/CEO Bettina Hannigan. “As quickly and unpredictively as the State issues its edicts for where and what is safe for people to do, and then just as quickly rescinds them, it leaves us trying to hit a moving target while making plans for a huge event in as little time as possible.”
“Vaccines, we’re now told, will roll out much slower than first announced. The rapidity in growth and spread of variants has become too unstable, that complicates matters further,” she added.
“The board and other stakeholders have agreed that there is no way to enforce social distancing and efficient proper sanitizing, even outdoors to hold the carnival. Hannigan continued. “The same must be said for distancing at a vendor fair or during a parade. OHA guidelines prohibit large gatherings and we must comply with these restrictions. We are so saddened by another loss for this generational family tradition and its economic impact on Florence for a second year.”
The Rhododendron Festival makes the single largest economic impact on Florence’s tourist-driven economy and serves as the kick-off to the tourism season. Around 1900 people in Florence rely on tourism-based employment, and tourism pumps about $147 million into our community each year.
“Safety really is our top priority and so we’re forced to hold off on promoting the level of tourism our community needs to survive. We are really chomping at the bit to get back up to speed, but it’s just not safe enough to do so yet,” Hannigan explained. “Even though we’ve noticed them, this is not in response to those small pockets of mean-spirited outrage on social media. It’s just the right thing to do in the face of the rapid changes and edicts forced on society.”
Relatedly, Hannigan said that ancillary events such as the Rhody Run, the classic car show ‘n’ shine and cruise, the Rhododendron Society’s flower show, and music events, are not organized by the chamber and that the organizers of each will have to make their own decision for how they want to proceed.
Last year’s Rhody Fest, though officially cancelled for the first time since WWII, did feature a virtual parade coordinated by the City of Florence with short videos submitted by the public and edited for use on social media. Local rhododendron expert, and Chamber ambassador Mike Bones, took it upon himself last year to roll a wheelbarrow packed with rhododendrons along the traditional parade route in lieu of the official Sunday grand floral parade.
“We continue doing all we can to safely advance the cause of commerce during the pandemic to make Florence the best place to live, work, shop, eat, play, and stay—now, and as the crisis passes,” she explained. “As I’ve said many times before, we must be vigilant in adhering to Governor Kate Brown’s rulings. A healthy, vibrant community is essential for everyone’s success. As a chamber of commerce, and as a community at large, our top priority should be preventing further spread of COVID-19 and taking care of each other with compassion, humility, and encouragement.”