Remembering how we got here

Photos from the top, Portland, Penticton, Marysville, Puyallup, Spokane, Sumner, Seattle, Tacoma, and Wenatchee. Not pictured are trips to New Westminster, BC, Cashmere and Orting. These appearances have introduced Leavenworth to most of the Pacific Northwest for over 50 years. Northwest Hosting estimates that their annual Festival Circuit exposes 17 million people to their events. No other group goes out to issue a personal invitation to come and support our community like Autumn Leaf. The city is currently considering defunding festivals.

At the city council study session last week our new city manager, Ana Cortez remarked about how amazing it is to work for a town that is so financially strong. “This is amazing, I have always worked for poor towns,” said Cortez.

Cortez can be excused for her lack of understanding about how we got here but most of the rest of the council and the Mayor cannot.

The problem is that their lack of understanding of the history appears to be putting the city on a track to undo the magic that pulled the city out of depression back in the early 60’s. At that moment in time, the town had been through 4 decades of financial decay caused by the shut down of the lumber mill and the pullout of the railroad.

In 1962 the townspeople started project LIFE which stood for Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone. A small group of local business owners and residents came together to find a way to revitalize their community. In 1963 they launched Project Alpine which was designed to take advantage of its natural setting and build the community into a tourism center with a Bavarian Theme.

At the time they had no money and no way to promote the community, but in 1963 they launched the oldest festival in town – The Autumn Leaf Festival. To promote the theme and the festival, townspeople volunteered to visit community festivals around the Pacific Northwest and invite them to come visit Leavenworth. Since the city had no money to help, volunteers often stayed with relatives or slept in their cars.

Over the years the Festival grew and eventually became a member of Northwest Hosting, a group that sponsors major festivals and events across the Pacific Northwest. As part of Northwest Hosting, (ALFA) -Washington State Autumn Leaf Festival Association – attends multiple parades from Portland to Penticton, BC and New Westminster, BC to Spokane. Northwest Hosting estimates that participation in their sponsored events exposes Leavenworth to 17 million people every year through parades and TV coverage of these events.

More importantly, the participation in the other parades and festivals of Northwest Hosting members guarantees that Leavenworth’s celebration of the changing colors will draw participation in our festival from all of the other members of Northwest Hosting. In other words, it puts heads in beds and creates a basic group on which to build our local festival. ALFA uses that base to draw high school bands from around the state. Those bands range in size from 20 or 30 to over 200 and they usually come with parents, grandparents and siblings.

Without the Autumn Leaf Festival Association none of that would happen.

In the interest of full disclosure here, my wife and I have been heavily involved in ALFA. I served as President and Treasurer and my wife Carol is a past board member and was the 2016 Royal Lady. We have attended every one of Northwest Hosting’s festivals for many years.  I am no longer active in Autumn Leaf, but we have an intimate understanding of the hard work that is required by the volunteers that make this festival circuit a reality.

The only member of the current City Council that has attended any of these events is Sharon Waters and her participation was limited to Cashmere’s Founders Days. The council’s only understanding of ALFA is limited to looking at the financial reports and the fact that ALFA receives approximately $35,000 per year for ALFA activities.

The problem with the fact that no city council member, chamber of commerce employee, or city employee has been to these other festivals is they have no appreciation for the impact ALFA has around the Pacific Northwest.

The work in building a successful Autumn Leaf Festival has historically begun in April with the Daffodil Festival in Tacoma. That festival includes 4 parades in one day. It’s in the spring so it is usually cold and often rains. The parade starts in downtown Tacoma then progresses to Puyallup, Sumner and Orting. It is a grueling all day event.

The ALFA team that goes to these events usually consists of eight to ten people. We take the ALFA Float which often needs some preparation before each parade. Walkers dressed in Bavarian clothing – Dirndls and Lederhosen accompany the float in the parade. Only the Royal Lady rides on the float.

Our parade entry is unique. Most floats are filled with young high school girls who wave to the crowd as they pass by. When the Autumn Leaf Float approaches the crowds along the route get out of their chairs to join in with the walkers in the Chicken Dance. They are often screaming, “we love Leavenworth.” Those who have never heard of Leavenworth are asking where is Leavenworth? The effect is like a “Flash Mob” that captures everybody’s attention for a second and puts a smile on their faces and ours.

The city’s contribution of $35,000 is not enough. It costs about $65,000 to maintain the activities. It is primarily an advertising program designed to put “Heads in Beds” and should be fully funded by LAP funds. LAP has averaged $2.2 million per year over the last 3 years including the decline of 12% in 2020 as a result of the Pandemic.

Autumn Leaf is more than a one day festival that draws in parade participants and high school bands from all over the state. It is the only festival that is actively seeking to draw visitors to the Bavarian Village all year long.

City Manager, Ana Cortez told me the other day that the Christmas Lighting will never be the same. It is clear from the announcement she presented at the last study session that Oktoberfest will also likely be gone and clearly Autumn Leaf cannot function on a $10,000 grant. In other words, it appears the new administration does not understand why the city is so financially strong.

Leavenworth is successful because it has a long history of fostering a business and government partnership that has made us the envy of most of the small towns in the Pacific Northwest. There are undoubtedly a number of people who will cheer about the clear message that Oktoberfest will not be the same. There will also be people who are happy about shutting down Christmas Lighting.

Closure of these festivals will have a monumental impact on our small businesses. On local employment opportunities and on the ability for us to maintain our parks, streets and facilities without significant increases in local taxes.

Let us not forget that our lodging tax has built the Festhalle, train station and pays for much of our current park maintenance.

For their part, Mayor Carl Florea and the Council members must begin to reign in the insanity of the Leavenworth Fund before they wake up and find the Golden Goose has been cooked.


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