Eugene Celebration’s Future (and Present)

Last weekend hundreds or maybe thousands of residents flocked to Skinner Butte Park for the Festival of Eugene. But many more are spending August not attending the Eugene Celebration, because it’s not happening this year. Nobody has talked about it — at least not publicly.

Call the number for Eugene Celebration and you’ll get voice mail: “For food inquiries, dial one, … for entertainment questions, dial two.” I left a message last week, but no one called me back.

Nothing’s been said about 2015 partly because no one has asked. The organizer’s phone isn’t ringing off the hook — and not only because our phones no longer have hooks. Facebook and Twitter accounts were last updated a year ago. The website, as of this week, still tells visitors to “Stay tuned for details on events for 2015!”

The mayor and our city councilors have not asked about its fate. Other leaders haven’t been willing to bring it up. Even at the annual S.L.U.G. Queen coronation earlier this month, the absence of a parade this year was accepted without being actually confirmed.

We’ve managed to put the “shun” in “Celebration.”

In its defense, Kesey Enterprises, the event’s organizer, has been busy with other worthwhile ventures.

It’s not like Kit Kesey and his crew have been doing nothing for Eugene and its downtown celebrating. They keep things hopping at the McDonald Theatre, and they’ve remade the Cuthbert Amphitheater into the source of civic pride its designers originally intended.

I wrote an essay almost two years ago suggesting that the Eugene Celebration may have run its course. Its headline read, “Eugene Celebration Outlives Its Zany Allure,” and it did get people talking. But I’m not willing to accept credit or blame that there hasn’t been another one since.

Nobody stopped to consider how downtown’s longsuffering blight offered such a rich loam for Eugene Celebration’s sprouting success, but it’s clear now that downtown’s decay fertilized the event’s growth. City celebrations may be countercyclical, like taverns, in this way. They thrive during tough economic times. When optimism returns, bar stools go vacant.

The original mission of the Eugene Celebration was to get residents to feel good about their city while visiting downtown. We can’t do that now, because there’s no room.

We can’t reserve one weekend to fill the streets of downtown with revelry and camaraderie, because these days every weekend downtown is reserved for revelry and camaraderie. What was once called “Eugene Celebration” for three days is now called “Eugene” for 365, and that’s certainly worth celebrating. As celebrating Eugene becomes easier, a Eugene Celebration becomes harder.

Tellingly, the Festival of Eugene staged inside Skinner Butte Park, where street closures are not necessary, but fencing for a paid event would not be possible. No one believes that any event staged in the park could ever grow to the scale of recent Eugene Celebrations, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

The conundrum seems to be this. We can have a central event that is free and not-too-large. Or we can have a large event that won’t be central.

Personally, I’d love to see us gather each summer or fall, crowding both sides of our river. Each side could be planned by its nearby residents. The south side would have S.L.U.G. Queens, tofu sculptures, an electric-car derby, and beer gardens. The north side would have wine tastings, antique car shows, pig roasts and a bed race. Finish the weekend with a tug-of-war between our two very different local cultures.

But that’s for another day. I contacted Kesey Enterprises about 2015. Here is their response:

“Kesey Enterprises, Inc. continues to consider an array of possibilities for a dynamic event on the Eugene Celebration weekend 2016. Although it would have been possible to produce the 2015 Eugene Celebration, we felt that by doing so we could compromise the downtown residents and businesses with the size and attendance of the event that we envision. The … reasoning behind its postponement remains the same as outlined in … 2014.”

The Celebration is dead! Long live the Celebration!

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.