By MATTHEW REITZ
OSWEGO — Two of the Port City’s premier summer events have been called off.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow on Saturday announced Harborfest and the city’s July 4 Independence Day Parade are cancelled this year due to COVID-19 concerns and ongoing construction at the city’s waterfront. Both events draw massive crowds throughout the Port City, with approximately 75,000 people visiting Harborfest throughout the four-day festival that includes dozens of musical performances and amusement rides in addition to a world-class fireworks display.
“We are disappointed that the Independence Day Parade and Harborfest 2020 are cancelled,” the mayor said in a statement.
In addition to concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 and public health risks associated with the disease, Barlow noted Wright’s Landing Marina and the waterfront area are currently under construction, creating an unsafe environment. The city is in the middle of a $15 million transformation of the Lake Ontario waterfront, including the marina and International Pier.
“While this was certainly a difficult decision, I believe it is in the best interest of public health and public safety to cancel the event and also allows our construction projects to continue making progress,” Barlow said.
Harborfest Executive Director Peter Myles said the Harborfest Board of Directors arrived unfortunately at the reality of the situation, and made the call to pull the plug on what would have been the 33rd annual event.
“For the past several weeks, the board has been evaluating information from state and local officials as well as the financial feasibility of holding the festival using a reduced number of venues,” Myles said. “Given all the information obtained, they made their decision to cancel this year’s festival in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Harborfest board members felt it would be “nearly impossible to maintain social distancing and safety protocols at the event,” Myles said.
The Harborfest board members share a feeling of disappointment in canceling the event, Myles said, adding it was “very apparent” that “the responsible choice” would be to support health and safety, minimize the spread of COVID-19 and try again next year.
Barlow thanked Myles and the Harborfest board for working with city officials on the tough decision.
“I look forward to working with them over the next 12 months to explore ways to bring Harborfest back stronger in 2021,” Barlow said.
Barlow said the Oswego Independence Day fireworks display is still scheduled to take place on July 5 at 9:45 p.m.
City officials plan to launch the July 5 fireworks display from the pedestrian railroad bridge for more accessible viewing locations and to maintain proper social distancing.
Founded in 1988, Harborfest was designed to celebrate Oswego’s heritage and waterfront during the adminstration of Mayor John T. Sullivan Jr. The effort was spearheaded by Sullivan’s late wife, Charlotte. “Oswegofest,” an existing summertime event, was folded into Harborfest, and the event grew year after year.
Local reaction to putting one of Oswego’s annual highlights on the shelf was mixed between disappointment and resignation.
“From its very humble beginnings, skillfully nurtured by Charlotte Sullivan, Harborfest grew to become one of Oswego County’s premier events,” David Turner, the director of tourism, planning and development for Oswego County told The Palladium-Times Monday.
As Harborfest grew, it was recognized multiple times by the American Bus Association as one of the group’s top national events of the year. NBC’s “TODAY” has broadcast from Breitbeck Park on several occasions and legendary weatherman Willard Scott even visited in 1992 to do a live broadcast.
One key aspect of Harborfest has always been the music, with a variety of performance spaces set up at parks and other venues around Oswego. The main stage at Breitbeck Park regularly hosts national acts: Kenny Loggins, Blues Traveler, Blue Oyster Cult and Joan Jett are some of the musicians who have rocked audiences throughout the years.
While attendance has dipped since its four-day peak of more than 300,000 people in the mid-1990s, last year’s Harborfest drew roughly 75,000 to the area. Harborfest is organized by its all-volunteer board of directors and 75 other volunteer workers.
“Anyone not involved with the internal workings of a ‘free’ event of this size probably cannot fully comprehend the work and cost involved with making something the size of Harborfest successful,” Turner said. “We have been fortunate over the years to have had a dedicated group of individuals who somehow found a way to pull it off and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”
The annual major sponsor list is a who’s-who of local and regional business giants: Exelon Generation, Pathfinder Bank, Novelis Corporation, Eagle Beverage Company and the Port of Oswego Authority, to name just a few of the largest contributors. Turner said the full economic impact of Harborfest on the area has never been truly analyzed or appreciated. He’s confident, however, that the jewel of the Port City summer will return once the “extremely unfortunate... but not completely unforseen” health crisis has passed.
“We have every hope that this is but a brief respite from these summertime delights and that the festival will rise from the Covid ashes and continue to entertain us and our visitors for many summers to come,” Turner said.
On Monday, leadership for The Palladium-Times announced that despite the cancellation of Harborfest, the Pall-Times Harborquest Medallion scavenger hunt is set to proceed as planned. Watch this space, our website and social media for more information and the first clues.