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Winterfest officials moving forward, looking for help

Like many events over the last year, Winterfest 2021 fell victim to COVID-19.

The organizers are looking forward to bringing the event back in 2022.

“We’re going to have Winterfest,” Winterfest Planning Committee Chairman Ed Atwood said. “I don’t care who you are, you have to do something in the winter.”

The annual event held at Chapman State Park features sled-dog races, sledding, ice skating, fishing, a sled dog weight pull, the Polar Plunge, and other events – when the weather cooperates and there aren’t active pandemics causing restrictions to outdoor gatherings.

Committee members met with Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) personnel Thursday morning at Chapman.

They wanted to talk about the Special Activities Agreement (SAA) that had been prepared for the event by DCNR and presented to the group. The document details the rights and responsibilities of the stakeholders — including Winterfest sponsor PennSOIL RC&D.

There were dollar amounts, cleaning requirements, and policies for postponement and cancellation, among other items in the agreement.

The organizers wanted to know if the document was in its final form.

“We have some problems with the whole proposal,” Atwood said. “You gotta iron stuff out so it works.”

DCNR Bureau of State Parks Region 1 Assistant Manager Jared Fencil said the document is “a draft agreement. The majority of the SAA is standard language. When SAAs get renewed, it’s a chance to look over the language.”

“We’ll work together,” Fencil said. “We’re going to look through this document.”

The document doesn’t have to be finalized for months, he said.

According to the proposed document, Winterfest would have to pay the Bureau of State Parks $2,400.

Although the amount was not objectionable to Atwood, that it was written in advance was a tough pill to swallow.

“The dollar never goes down,” Atwood said. “It always goes up.”

The event has sponsors, but not all of them are giving dollars. “A lot of people will give you in-kind things that won’t give you money,” Atwood said.

“We’re strictly a non-profit organization,” PennSOIL’s Wes Ramsey said. “I’m part-time. $2,400? I can understand that, but it puts a heavy lift on the council as the official sponsor.”

Park Manager Tyson Martin explained the amount.

“The reimbursement is strictly an estimate and in your control,” Martin said. “If you want the beach house unwinterized in January, that’s $1,000.” The same amount applied to another building.

The other $400 is for dumpsters. “On a normal January weekend, we don’t fill eight dumpsters,” he said.

He said the park has to pay for those things using tax-payer dollars.

“$2,400 is about 2 percent of our annual budget,” Martin said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow year after year. We’ve seen attendance go down. The electricity doesn’t and neither do the dumpsters.”

Committee members said they would look into using ‘port-a-johns’ and investigate in-kind sponsors for trash removal in an effort to bring that amount down.

One of the items in the SAA gives the park manager the right to cancel events. While committee members said they understood that the park has to have that authority, they had concerns.

Martin said he “took the language from the previous agreement” and that he would not surprise the committee with any cancellations. “If I’m thinking about canceling, I’m going to discuss that with the sponsor,” he said.

Fencil said the bureau must have the ability to cancel events on park lands to maintain public safety – “a blizzard that’s going to make is unsafe to travel… COVID restrictions that we didn’t foresee a year ago, or 10 years ago.”

“Winter festivals are tough,” he said. “The weather is unpredictable. You have to be flexible. That makes it challenging.”

Martin proposed that the groups get together again this month.

Looking for help

The committee is looking for more members. Both Atwood and Ramsey said they don’t expect to be in charge of the committee and the event for many more years.

“My first one was 46, 47 years ago,” Atwood said. “We started out with the winter carnival and then sled dog races on a different weekend.”

“The thing about Winterfest — it’s a long-time game and the county really needs it,” he said. “It brings a lot of people out here for the first time and then they come back.”

“The committee needs a lot more volunteers,” Ramsey said.

He said PennSOIL is willing to step back from the primary sponsor role and be a co-sponsor or simple provide the required insurance for the event.

“We need the county to hire a recreation director to run Winterfest and everything else,” Atwood said. “Tourism could go BOOM if we had the right person running things.”

Mary Kushner suggested that the organization could partner with the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry.

“I’m more than willing to join the chamber,” Atwood said.

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