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What happened to Charlottesville's Dogwood Festival?

Something has changed. And it’s difficult to point to a single reason why.

After 75 years, it’s no surprise that Charlottesville’s Dogwood Festival has evolved. After all, that’s not even its original name. From 1950 until 1958, it was the Apple Harvest Festival, until planners reorganized and rebranded.

But as the Dogwood Parade ambled down Market Street in downtown Charlottesville Saturday morning, it was clear that over the past three quarters of a century there’s been more than just tweaks to the branding. Crowds so large they blocked pedestrian traffic have shrunk in size exponentially, the traditional parade floats covered in flowers and ribbon have been reduced to trailers or participants’ own personal vehicles, and while spirits were high, the mood was markedly different from Dogwood Festivals of years past.

The Dogwood Foundation that puts on the festival blames changing tastes, difficulty finding venues for special events and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had an impact both on fundraising and social gatherings in general. The foundation lost McIntire Park as a carnival venue two years ago and has disbanded the attraction for now. The foundation’s long-running pageant did not crown a queen or a court this year. And while the annual breakfast benefitting local charities is still held, the Kiwanis Club, and not the foundation, organizes it.

“Some events just aren’t as appealing to the public as they once were,” T.D. Layman, who has served as parade director for 15 years, told The Daily Progress.

It’s not clear which events Layman means. After all, April is festival season in the area, and the Dogwood festivities are bookended by Founder’s Day at Monticello and the Foxfield Races, both well-attended events. The Virginia Film Festival in October and Virginia Festival of the Book in March remain popular attractions for locals and visitors alike.

A more stark comparison, the Dogwood Festival is held concurrently with the city’s Tom Tom Festival, which advertises itself as an annual celebration of the city’s “music, art, and ideas” and regularly attracts thousands to its concerts, contests, community forums and block parties. Friday night, the crowd erupted in cheers as the No BS Brass Band paraded into the Ting Pavilion flanked by majorettes and standard-bearers carrying a half-dozen Tom Tom flags blowing in the breeze. Down the Downtown Mall, throngs of people filled Main Street, where restaurants had moved their bars out onto the bricks to serve passersby. What little free space existed was filled by DJs, fire dancers, musicians and other performers.

The crowd at the Dogwood Parade a mere 12 hours later paled in comparison.

Many have openly questioned what has happened to the festival’s most popular attraction: the Dogwood Carnival.

Valley Amusements, based in Wardensville, West Virginia, worked with the Dogwood Foundation for years to present a carnival with rides in the city’s McIntire Park. Last year, Valley Amusements operated an unaffiliated carnival, this time in the parking lot of the Fashion Square shopping mall in Albemarle County just north of the city after being unable to find a location that would work for the Dogwood Festival.

Valley Amusements has worked with the Dogwood Foundation for almost all of the company’s 12 years, said Gregg Roberts, who owns the business with his brother.

“McIntire Park was the perfect location,” Roberts told The Daily Progress. “That was a third of our revenue all year. The city will no longer allow a carnival on grass.”

The city’s decision that the carnival could not operate on grass was what prompted it to move to the parking lot of a shuttered Kmart off U.S. 29 two years ago, well out of sight of the blooming dogwoods in McIntire Park but still in city limits.

Roberts said the city has also told the festival that wheelchair ramps are required to make sure visitors with limited mobility can access the rides. Securing ramps for all the rides would cost $30,000 to $40,000, Roberts said, which means putting on a Dogwood Carnival, at least in city limits, is financially out of reach for the company.

The Daily Progress reached out to the city and its visitors bureau for more details. The Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau directed The Daily Progress back to the carnival and festival organizers. City offices did not immediately respond.

Roberts said the search continues for a spot, maybe in neighboring Albemarle County, that checks off all the boxes.

“We tried everything,” Roberts said. “We’ll definitely keep looking.”

In the meantime, carnival fans can find Valley Amusements twice a year at Pleasant Grove Park in neighboring Fluvanna County. Roberts said his company will present a carnival there from May 8 to 11 and again from Aug. 14 to 17 during the Fluvanna County Fair.

The man who organizes one of Charlottesville’s biggest festivals, the Virginia Film Festival, said he feels the Dogwood Foundation’s pain.

It has been difficult and time-consuming to rebuild audiences after the pandemic mandated social-distancing and closures, Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival, told The Daily Progress.

Kielbasa said he has fond memories of taking his children to the Dogwood Festival’s carnival in McIntire Park.

“It really exuded Americana to me, and maybe a bygone era,” Kielbasa said. The Kmart lot two years ago, he said, “was a different vibe.” But he knows only too well how the COVID-19 pandemic and its limitations on large gatherings has posed challenges for festivals of all kinds.

Nevertheless, the film festival exceeded projections in 2023 with more than 19,600 film fans showing up in force. It was still below its pre-pandemic levels of roughly 23,000, but it was still “an overwhelming success for us,” Kielbasa said.

“It has been a real issue,” Kielbasa said of the difficulty of bringing back pre-pandemic audiences to live gatherings. “It is my hope that audiences will come back [to live events] and feel comfortable. It has been a challenge for all events to come back.”

So there is hope, perhaps, for the Dogwood Festival. The success of Tom Tom, the Virginia Film Festival and the Virginia Festival of the Book shows there is an interest in these kinds of community gatherings. And just because crowd sizes have diminished and tastes have changed doesn’t mean it’s the end.

After all, some festival organizers who ceased operations during the pandemic are seriously considering bringing their attractions back.

The popular Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello was “reimagined” as a virtual affair in 2020 during the worst of the pandemic before it disappeared from the social calendar altogether. Now, the new head of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, says a comeback is “not off the table.”

“We need chances to bring the community to the mountaintop,” Jane Kamensky told The Daily Progress earlier this year.

Could the Dogwood Festival return to its former glory? There’s always a chance.


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