By Linda Dillman
Canal Winchester’s popular Blues and Ribfest has been cancelled for this year.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” said Destination: Canal Winchester Executive Director Karen Stiles. “Our board had been discussing it for several weeks and had been paying close attention to Governor DeWine’s announcements regarding his restrictions on festivals and events. Though many were frustrated that we cancelled again or that we cancelled as early as we did, they don’t understand that we have no choice but to follow the restrictions set by our governor. Nor do they understand the amount of time and money it takes to put together a festival of this size.”
Stiles said planning for the festival typically begins in September of the previous year, including booking entertainers. Planning for the 2021 began last year despite the cancellation of the 2020 festival.
“Many of the restrictions were problematic for our festival—one of our biggest issues is the ‘only 30 percent of typical attendance,’” said Stiles. Our city isn’t gated nor can it be, so there would be no way of meeting this requirement. We looked at moving the event to anther Canal Winchester location that was gated, but couldn’t find a location that had the access to water and electric that food vendors require, nor the electric entertainers require. Parking was also going to be a problem. We also discussed moving it to later in the year, but there were still no guarantees and trying to find a date was a problem.”
Stiles said, although the Destination: Canal Winchester board could have waited with hopes and fingers crossed that some of the restrictions would be lifted, they still would need to pay entertainers a non-refundable deposit. There were also concerns that, if they waited and still had to cancel, vendors would miss out on other opportunities around the country.
“We didn’t want to put them in this position. They had already had a rough 2020,” said Stiles.
In addition to the 2020 and 2021 Blues and Ribfest, Destination: Canal Winchester also cancelled last year’s Art on the Canal Art Stroll and its Reindeer Run due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to host events that bring people to our city and see all that Canal Winchester has to offer,” said Stiles. “We also love being able to provide the people of Canal Winchester fun things to do. As an organization, it’s terribly frustrating to have to limit what you host.”
The city’s Blues and Ribfest originally started in Pickerington many years ago. According to Stiles, when Pickerington no longer wanted to host the event, they approached Canal Winchester to see if it would be interested in moving the festival to Canal Winchester. Mayor Mike Ebert spoke with Bruce Jarvis, the director of Destination: Canal Winchester at the time and Jarvis agreed to take over the event.
The first Canal Winchester Blues and Ribfest was held in 2010 and has grown steadily with free live entertainment on two stages, over 25 food vendors—rib vendors included—a large beer garden and a kids’ area filled with activities.
“I can’t tell you how often entertainers have told me this is one of their favorite festivals because they love our community and the people who attend are fantastic,” said Stiles. “They ask to come back. How wonderful is that.”
The festival now attracts an average of 36,000 attendees each year.
“Due to the success, we’ve made many changes that help make the festival more enjoyable,” Stiles said. “One of the first changes we made was to bring in national rib vendors that tour the country doing fairs and festivals. This change was made because these rib vendors are able to go from one food line to seven in the blink of an eye. This certainly helps people get their smoked ribs, brisket or chicken more quickly. We also greatly increased the size of the Beer Garden to accommodate our much larger crowd. In 2019, for the first time, we brought in a much larger main stage. This places the entertainment a bit higher to make it easier for all to see the performers on stage and to enjoy that energy.”
Stiles said when her board cancelled the festival in 2020, they never dreamed they would cancel it again in 2021.
“I don’t think anyone believed that we would, as a nation, still be battling this pandemic,” said Stiles. “I have to believe we will be back next year.”