The time has come to kill the Eugene Celebration. It was a great event and it played an important role for the city of Eugene, but it accomplished its goal and it’s over now.
Cynthia Wooten and some of her merry band started the Eugene Celebration in 1983 to brighten citizens’ spirits and to bring people downtown. Eugene’s economy had tanked. Downtown businesses were closing or moving. The University of Oregon’s sports teams offered no relief from the city’s collective doldrum, except that you always knew how much time remained in the game you were losing.
So why not throw a party? Empty spaces were abundant. People had time on their hands. Downtown wasn’t anything but a central location.
After a few years, the local depression abated into a never-ending recession. Underemployment and depressed salaries became the norm for the region. A free party downtown never quite went out of style.
Then came the Rickies, followed by the Lucies, the Harlequins, and other ad hoc groups who marched in the parade to prove who could waste time in the zaniest way. We flaunted our ability to not take ourselves too seriously, hoping to hide the fact that we had little reason to do otherwise.
Events filled the weekend that sounded like bad ideas that hadn’t been stopped. Bed races down 8th Avenue, sand castles on Olive Street, classic car shows next to the valet bike parking, the Mrs. America pageant winner followed in the parade by Dykes on Bikes.
The event first began accepting voluntary admission fees in the mid-1990s. Then came pins, then admission bracelets — no longer voluntary. Admission costs accelerated expectations, propelling it past the purview of the city, especially during budget cut seasons.
Eugene Celebration was then bequeathed to a nonprofit organization which kept it going to promote downtown. Or they kept it going just to keep it going. Then came some bad timing — a typhoon, a terrorism scare, another economic downturn.
None of those misfortunes was enough to kill the Eugene Celebration. That duty now falls to us.
Downtown Eugene is finally busy every weekend. Eugene Celebration continues to attract hoards downtown, but now those crowds are also keeping downtown’s regular customers away. That was never the case before because downtown had no regular customers, unless you count drugs and delinquency as business.
The merchants and restaurateurs I’ve spoken to now consider the Eugene Celebration a nuisance or a wash. Nobody wants to be a party pooper, but the new customers they get that weekend are balanced against their regular customers who choose to stay away.
I love a good party as much as anyone, and Kesey Entertainment has done a fine job managing the festival, but diminishing returns are evident all around. Admission prices have gone up. Musical offerings have become staid. The parade has begun to approach predictability.
Eugene Celebration has become captive to its own success. Nobody would dare suggest sweeping changes, for fear that people will complain it’s not as good as it used to be. That’s why we should end it.
After it’s gone away for a year or two, do you know what will happen? Something else will sprout to take its place. Some will claim that’s already happening with the Whiteaker Block Party or the Pearl Street Block Party or the Sunday Streets festivals.
If we had a clean sheet of paper, we might invent some new way to celebrate Eugene that doesn’t obstruct our revived downtown merchants and turns the attention toward another spot we all overlook.
It might recreate itself as a riverfront festival. Or it might pop up on campus before the students return, so that everyone in town can see what’s happened there. It might move into the football team’s bye week, giving Duck fans an opportunity to maintain their beer intake without cheering for a team.
Whatever appears should be strong enough to withstand a little weather. As things go in Oregon, an August rain is an awfully weak opponent. If that’s what stands between you and success, it’s time to pull the plug and start over.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.