Freedom versus shrimp. Is a festival war brewing on the Alabama coast?



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Freedom Fest is Orange Beach’s one-day response to this year’s cancellation of the National Shrimp Festival in neighboring Gulf Shores.

But the mayor of Orange Beach has said he wants future iterations of Freedom Fest to take place on the same weekend as what is typically Alabama’s second-largest event.

Is a festival war brewing?

“I’ve never been afraid of competition,” said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon.

But the notion of competing festivals has a local artist, and a longtime Gulf Shores Shrimp Festival attendee, wondering if attendees could get caught up in a political mess.

“It’s a small war between the two municipalities,” said Steve Dark, of Pottery Central World Headquarters in Gulf Shores.

Kennon told AL.com last week that the Freedom Festival – whose inaugural event takes place on Saturday at The Wharf entertainment complex – is “now an annual event” that he plans to broadcast across town. He said future festival activities could take place in the city’s new performing arts center, the famous Flora-Bama, and elsewhere within the city limits. A motor show is also in the works, he said.

“We have all of these sites and we plan to have something at each of them,” Kennon said. “Next year we want a community-wide event and use all venues we can. We want to expand and diversify – giving options to country musicians and other local musicians and family dinner theater.

Steve Jones, vice president of events and community relations with the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, said the Shrimp Festival is not a city sponsored event. He said neither Gulf Shores City Council nor Mayor Robert Craft’s administration made the decision to disconnect.

“The city has an interest because it’s the host city,” Jones said. “There is a great relationship there. But it is an event strictly run by volunteers and produced by the chamber.

The Shrimp Festival is sponsored by the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber and is hosted by hundreds of volunteers.

“You have the (city’s) police, fire and public works and workers involved with it,” said Jones, who is also a member of the Gulf Shores city council. “The city has an interest because it is the host city. There is a great relationship there. But it is an event strictly run by volunteers and produced by the chamber.

Business model ”

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon spoke to the media after officials unveiled a roughly $ 17.5 million boat launch on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. In the background is find The Wharf entertainment center where this year’s Freedom Festival will be held. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Kennon remains puzzled over the cancellation of the Shrimp Festival, which has its roots in the early 1970s and became a tourist attraction in early October for Alabama.

It is regularly listed as the second largest event in the state, behind the only Mardi Gras which takes place over several weeks and weekends in Mobile and Baldwin counties. The Shrimp Festival draws over 300,000 people over a four-day weekend on the Gulf Shores public beach. It also attracts over 300 exhibitors, art sellers and musical artists.

But the festival has long been barrier-free and ticketless, allowing visitors to come and go freely on the grounds of the public beach. Art vendors are usually adjacent to each other, and crowds roam the public beach in close contact with each other.

“We don’t have the real estate to put our stands 10 feet apart,” he said. “It was physically impossible to do it that way.”

This 49th rendition of the festival was canceled as the delta variant of COVID-19 was spreading throughout Baldwin County and filling its hospitals.

The closest hospital to Gulf Shores – South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley – needed a federal team of healthcare workers to help an overcrowded facility that was treating a wave of sick patients. A morgue caravan was also parked outside the hospital, generating national news and raising concern in the area.

“I’m not saying everyone who died was vaccinated or not, but we had a big spike going on and the hospital (officials) told us what it looked like,” Jones said.

Other businesses on the Alabama coast were battling spikes in infections in July and August, coinciding with the peak of summer tourism. Lulu’s, a popular bar and entertainment venue in Gulf Shores, closed in early August because “COVID infections are escalating among our staff to the point that we don’t have enough team members to function”, announced the venue on Facebook.

The cancellation was made official in early September, when there were more than 40 COVID-related deaths in the county, Jones said.

Volunteers, at the time, were shrinking or expressing concerns about their participation in this year’s festival.

Jones said it took 600 volunteers and a “ridiculous amount of institutional knowledge” to host the festival. With a reduction in volunteers to serve large crowds, “you have a train wreck” that could potentially affect future festivals.

Jones said he’d rather not have a festival than have people show up, line up for food and beer, and walk away with a “bad experience.”

He also said that it was not possible to replace experienced volunteers with others who had no previous experience with the large festival crowd.

“There’s a skill set for that… it’s a business model,” Jones said. “There is no festival like this.”

And social distancing is complicated during an “unclosed and ticketless” event. Art vendors are usually adjacent to each other, and crowds roam the public beach in close contact with each other.

“We don’t have the real estate to put our stands 10 feet apart,” he said. “It was physically impossible to do it that way.”

“A new house”

Half-way

Seafood concessions and crowds are two hallmarks of the annual National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores. The 2020 and 2021 festivals have been canceled.

Kennon said he would not have canceled the event altogether but would have “changed it in some way or another.”

“I never would have done anything,” Kennon said. “I would have modified it in a way for the Shrimp Festival brand to continue. This is the reason why we do (Freedom Fest). We don’t stop it. “

Jones said the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber makes the safety and concerns of its volunteers a top priority.

“I think the bottom line is that the committee is dedicated to producing the best experience we can have under the safe conditions possible,” Jones said. He said planners have another year to adjust the festival to adjust to the pandemic if further outbreaks of infection occur.

The festival could be “closed” next year, Jones said, where visitors could be screened before being allowed entry.

“It will happen next year, and we will have to get over the fence,” Jones said of the festival, which he has sworn not to cancel for a third year in a row.

For now, Freedom Fest is the only option for coastal visitors to Alabama this year. Kennon said the city plans to “do its best to attract as many people as possible” to the festival, including performers and vendors who otherwise would not have an event to attend this weekend. .

Freedom Fest features 100 performers covering a wide variety of mediums and crafts, local music, food, a kids’ zone, a charity motorcycle ride, and a Singing for Scholarships student competition. Musicians will perform in the morning at 3:45 pm The festival will end at 4:00 pm to host a Brooks & Dunn concert at the Wharf.

“I think people are enjoying that we are activating and that is happening for them,” Kennon said of the artists who will be featured at the event. “Maybe they’ve found a new home.”

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