Leaders help communities cope with cancellations, find alternatives to bringing people together
When Tom Dabertin, chairman and cofounder of Pierogi Fest in Whiting, thinks about the renowned event, he recognizes the role it plays in the city’s sense of community. But this year, a global health pandemic and social protests will mean the festival will have to go on hiatus.
Residents, businesses and visitors alike will miss out on the festival, which has grown in notoriety for its Mardi Gras-like atmosphere, freshly made pierogis and salute to the community’s Polish heritage. Like many other communities in the Region and the country, the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce decided to call off its big July event out of safety concerns.
“It’s certainly a loss of identity to us,” Dabertin said.
“Festivals are really an opportunity for communities to showcase themselves, (and) they are an economic opportunity (for) bringing in a huge number of people.”
Canceling the festival this year because of the uncertainties about the novel coronavirus was no easy decision, but Dabertin said the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber board made the right call.
It takes almost 675 volunteers to run Pierogi Fest, which draws between 350,000 and 400,000 people during its three-day run. The festival has become Indiana’s third largest event, behind only the Indianapolis 500 and the Indiana State Fair.
“The beauty of Pierogi Fest is, as large as it has gotten, it still provides visitors with that small-town flair, that small-town fun,” Dabertin said. “Unfortunately, that is missing this year.”
It is not just the loss of the influx of new and old faces to the city’s borders during the festival, it also is the loss of their return visits throughout the year because they discovered the community through Pierogi Fest.
“The impact is really going to be felt beyond the three days that would have been Pierogi Fest,” Dabertin said. “That same occurrence really happens to a lot of different communities and a lot of different festivals.”
He said the cancellation of Pierogi Fest and other events around the Region will be felt by every community across Northwest Indiana.
Heather Ennis, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, said community events are critically important to creating a sense of space.
Events, including Pierogi Fest in Whiting and Pork Fest in Kouts, for example, are huge draws that showcase the talent and uniqueness of those communities.
“People come from all over for these events and check out Northwest Indiana,” Ennis said. “They help a community build brand recognition.”
Like Dabertin, she agreed the impact of festivals can be felt long after the event itself has ended. In the absence of those big events this year, communities are coming together in other ways and through smaller activities that help foster that sense of community.
Farmers markets in Valparaiso and Crown Point, for example, are continuing with social distancing practices in place.
“That’s still generating a sense of community,” Ennis said. “You also are seeing all over Northwest Indiana people contributing and helping, which also creates a sense of community and a sense of pride.”
The crisis has put many people and businesses in duress. However, the situation also has brought people together to help those struggling because of the pandemic and to support those businesses fighting to survive.
Those in the community who can help are stepping up, Ennis said. People and businesses are making personal protective equipment, providing funds for food support, spending money at local businesses, filling virtual tip jars and doing what they can to assist their neighbors.
“This pandemic has created a different sense of community,” she said. “People are seeing things they didn’t see before.”
That camaraderie is what draws people to Northwest Indiana to live and work.
“People want to locate somewhere where people generally care about one another,” Ennis said. “I think Northwest Indiana has a ton of that, (and) we’re very fortunate.”
Canceling events people have come to love and expect can be a hurdle difficult to overcome, said Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. Organizers must act in the best interest of the event, the vendors and the attendees.
The uncertainty created by the pandemic made following through with large-scale summer events near impossible, he said.
“There’s way too much planning that goes into these huge events to do so with so much uncertainty,” Batistatos said. “With such a huge level of uncertainty, you cannot plan an event around that, (and) from the event planning point of view, there really is no choice.”
The cancellation of much anticipated events such as Pierogi Fest and Highland’s Fourth of July festivities are a blow to those communities, their residents and the many visitors who usually attend. “There’s a lot of pride there,” Batistatos said. “Those are the things you look forward to.”
Jonathon Jones, director of recreation for South Bend’s Venues Parks & Arts, said parks and events play an important role in the community, not just for health and wellness opportunities but also in terms of social equity.
“Not everyone can afford to go on a vacation far away or build their own little playgrounds in their backyards,” Jones said. “Our locations are a point of respite for people in the community, (and) they have a big impact overall on mental wellness.”
Closing parks and canceling events, all of which serve as meeting grounds for people, has had an impact on residents, he said. People have fewer chances to socialize.
Jones said children are missing their summer friends and counselors to whom they have become accustomed from annual camp opportunities.
“This is where community happens,” he said. “This is where people have an opportunity to connect.”
In the absence of regularly scheduled festivals and events, Jones said South Bend has been creative in continuing to foster a feeling of community.
“We have been trying to find ways to think outside the box,” Jones said.
Organizing drive-in movies has proven effective in South Bend. SBVPA partnered with a local radio station and event company and Indiana Whiskey to host the events that brought people together while enforcing social distancing.
“It really just gave people a chance for some kind of normalcy,” Jones said. The department is looking at ways to bring Boomer, a mobile customizable recreational unit in the iconic shape of a boombox that was introduced in 2019, to different parks for smaller events.
“We were really learning how to use it last year,” he said. “It is starting to become even more useful this year.”
Acknowledging the loss created by the cancellations of beloved events and festivals will affect people in different ways, said Anissa Rivers, supervising psychologist and director of training for Regional Mental Health Center in East Chicago. Some might need to mourn the loss of the events that are special to them and what those events represent.
“There’s no question there is a mental health impact,” Rivers said. “People are very sad, (and they) miss these events a great deal.”
She suggests beginning plans for 2021 events to get through the sense of loss. Event organizers can use the extra time to rethink their events for next year.
Rivers said connecting with an event’s community through social media is another way to keep connections alive in the absence of events.
“People are a lot more connected online and doing a lot more things in a virtual way,” Rivers said. “Virtual contact can help people cope with that lost sense of connection, (and) people may need to find a way to communicate with others who are similarly in situations about accepting the fact that it is a loss and sharing how much things are missed.”
Virtual tours have effectively kept people connected to the Indiana Dunes throughout the pandemic, said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism. Since ranger-led tours have been canceled, those who plan to visit can learn about the trails online before they come out.
Those who cannot visit also have an opportunity to tour the trails virtually, she said. Going forward, the virtual tours will continue as a new experience created by the pandemic.
Visitors flocked to the Indiana Dunes and its beaches during the late spring and early summer. Weimer said visitor traffic to the Dunes increased at that time because beaches in neighboring states were closed.
Weimer said her bureau is trying to bring visitors safely into the communities to help businesses suffering the effects of the pandemic.
“The heart of our communities is those downtown areas,” she said. “The health of the community is tied to the businesses, (and) what separates you from other areas are those unique businesses.”
Crown Point Mayor David Uran agreed.
“I think (for most) people having a vibrant downtown is important for the fabric of a community,” he said. “The alternative is devastating.”
Crown Point last year completed a downtown sidewalk expansion project, which has benefited restaurants on the square that conduct business outside — a plus during the pandemic.
The event cancellations that started with the annual twilight St. Patrick’s Day parade have meant a reduction in the number of visitors to Crown Point and the amount of money being spent in the city.
Events and amateur sports contribute to the economy in cities, including Crown Point where tourism dollars are a key source of income. Event cancellations mean a reduction in the number of visitors.
City coffers as well as those of businesses throughout the community are taking at hit because of cancellations.
“It’s a tremendous amount of revenue,” Uran said.
He said a community’s events are appreciated by residents as well as visitors.
“Getting those things back is important to the sense of community pride,” Uran said. “I think they will come back even stronger.”
Batistatos said people are dealing with event cancellations in different ways. Some are either turning to camping as a budget-friendly travel option or staying home and finding activities to do locally.
“I think people are spending a lot of money on their homes this year,” he said. “They are creating a smaller sense of community.”
He has witnessed it in his own neighborhood. There are more neighborhood gatherings, neighbors are talking more, Batistatos said.
“I think residents are discovering things that make them comfortable,” he said. “The ability to monitor and police who comes into their homes and backyards adds to that safety.
“I think the investments you are seeing in home renovations speaks to the mindset of Americans now, (so) I think people are finding their sense of community in different ways.”