Lily Festival is no more


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

The Neepawa Banner

By a 13 to 2 vote, the board of the Neepawa and Area Lily Festival passed a resolution to cease operations last Thursday evening. Despite optimism following a community meeting held in early October, board chair Brent Hunter said that the decision was made due to a lack of volunteers willing to sit on the organizing committee.

Hunter has been involved with the festival since its inception 18 years ago and says about the decision, “It was a rather emotional evening. Once you let it go, it’s probably not going to come back.” He has previously served as the festival’s chairman and was re-elected to that post at the organization’s annual general meeting, held in November. He explained that despite support from the community at the Oct. 3 community meeting, too few people stepped up to fill key roles.

Past chair Ken Waddell, who served nine terms as festival chair, isn’t happy with the decision. “It’s very sad, I think it’s a bad move for the community,” he said.

For those involved in organizing the festival, the announcement isn’t entirely a surprise. “We’ve been saying for a few years, ‘If we don’t get new blood, [the festival] maybe wouldn’t happen,” said Hunter. The festival has always been able to secure the 200 to 300 volunteers needed for the Lily Festival weekend but has struggled recently to fill organizing roles.

The board reached a crisis after this year’s festival; many board members had been involved from the festival’s inception and due to changing priorities or age, wanted to step away. It was hoped that the community meeting would bring forward some new blood and new ideas. 

To an extent, the appeal was successful– five new people stepped forward and were elected to the board at the AGM. However, despite the new members, the board was still looking for volunteers to fill the key positions of vice chairman, marketing chair, sponsorship chair and Lily Development chair. 

Waddell said that while the community meeting showed positive support for the festival, some expressed negative feelings towards the event. “As it turned out, people negative towards the festival came onto the board and influenced [the board] to make the decision to shut it down. Some long-time board members weren’t planning to continue and when faced with the desire by some to shut down the festival, they went along with it because they were tired of carrying the load,” he explained.

Board member Sheri Grant explained that there was no way the festival could continue as it had been. “The cold hard fact is not enough people came out to join the Lily Festival board to run it in the manner it has been run for 18 years,” she said.  She continued, explaining the decision to cease operations, “As far as I’m concerned, [it was] just a realization that we didn’t have enough people.  Time is working against us to do some of things that they have done in the past… Sponsorship programs are usually ready by now and marketing packages out, we’re nowhere near that.”

While the board was successful in recruiting new members, many positions were still unfilled. Grant explained, “None of us [new board members] are interested in putting together sponsorship packages, none of us are interested in the type of wonderful entertainment that was provided in the past. That isn’t where our interest lies and unfortunately, no one who has that interest came forward to show it.”

In addition to a shortage of volunteers, the festival showed a loss of $15,000 in 2014.  The loss corresponds to a reduction in grants from the Town of Neepawa and reduced sponsorships from area businesses. At an October Chamber of Commerce meeting, Waddell explained, “The festival losses for the last four years is roughly equal to the reduction in the [Town of Neepawa] grant.”

The loss of the festival will have a major impact on the community.  It attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 people who stayed, ate and shopped in the town. This year’s festival drew visitors from 14 different countries.  “I’m sure there will be people disappointed,” said Hunter. 

In addition to the visitors, the 40 out of town vendors spent an average of $500 on food, fuel and accommodations and the festival itself spent between $90,000 and  $100,000 with local businesses.

While the festival had “Lily” in its name, Hunter said that the committee has worked hard to provide other entertainment, especially for families with young children. The efforts seem to have been successful– the parade and children’s activities brought many families into town for the festival.

While there will be no Lily Festival next year, some of the newly elected Lily Festival board members are planning a new summer event. Operating under the umbrella of the Neepawa and District Chamber of Commerce, the event is planned for the Lily Festival weekend.

Talking about the new festival, Grant said, “I appreciate that [past volunteers] have put in a lot of work, absolutely, they have and they’ve brought a great world-wide awareness of our community and we all appreciate that, but it’s unfortunately time for a change. Not that we didn’t try, because we certainly did have two meetings and try to make it work. But I think it was naive to think that so few people were going to put on that huge festival.”

Chamber president Troy Mutch explained, “As the Chamber president, I am happy to announce the consensus of the board that we will welcome a new festival committee under the Chamber’s umbrella.”

The committee is still in the early stages but Grant said that a planning meeting is scheduled for this week. That meeting will build on the brainstorming done as part of a previous Lily Festival board meeting.

Grant said that the new festival will build on some the events that were previously a part of the Lily Festival, including the car show and Margaret Laurence Home antiques sale. They will be looking for more events and activities, to be organized individuals or groups in the community. She adds that they want to bring a range of people to the community and offer a variety of activities for area residents with the goal of encouraging participation in healthy living, family and community.

A few events have already been decided upon, one of which will be a reunion social at the Yellowhead Centre. Grant explained, “Whether we’re going to coin it a homecoming or high school reunion social yet to be decided”.

Grant is very excited about the possibility of a group organizing a drive-in movie, hopefully to take place Friday night.  “Families can come out and have blanket and lawn chair, have that experience most have not,” she explained.

Grant said that they would still like someone to organize a marathon that weekend and that they have discussed the idea of including a triathlon. She added that they are also hopeful that they can find someone to organize a colour run or mud run, which are popular in larger communities. 

While there are currently no lily related activities planned, Grant said that they would welcome a group wanting to organize a lily show or bulb sale.  Something that it has proven popular over the years.

While still in the early planning stages, Grant says that new events will be added as groups and organizations decide how they want to take part. “People should stay tuned for exciting announcements in the future,” she said.

Many of these new events could have been incorporated into the Lily Festival, but Grant explained why changes couldn’t be made while still keeping the “Lily Festival” name. Without a name change, she said, “People will come here expecting to see the same Lily Festival they have seen for 18 years, they’re not going to see that.  I don’t see a tent on the street,” she explained. Regardless, she said the festival was going to look very different in 2015 than it has in previous years.

“I think we have some good ideas and a good base of enthusiasm and ambition. We think we can make this a successful weekend,” explained Grant.

While it’s hopeful that the new festival will be successful in attracting visitors, the loss of the Lily Festival will result in some collateral damage.  

Waddell noted that the work done by the festival to promote the community goes beyond the festival weekend. “I think the festival has done a great thing for community identity and creating awareness about Neepawa and what it offers… It has been the only central tourism promotion initiative for many years,” he explained. To date, no group is picking up this role.

The end of the festival will also mean some changes to the town’s landscaping. With the dissolution of the festival, Hunter said that they would likely only keep maintaining the lily gardens at Gertrude Williams Park, Elizabeth Street and the Presbyterian Church.  He added that the other beds currently maintained by the festival would likely be let go.

Looking to the future, Hunter said, “It’s history, gone.  We will move on… [but] it will be missed.”