This year’s edition of Dickens on Centre, a Victorian-themed Christmas festival held annually in downtown Fernandina Beach, remains undecided due to the limits placed on the size of public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At an Amelia Island Tourist Development Council Board of Directors meeting held July 29, TDC Managing Director Gil Langley asked the board for input on the three-day event that brings thousands of visitors and $3 million into the area.
The city recently canceled several public events that were expected to attract more than 50 people each, the maximum number of people that should gather under state guidelines. Langley said this fall’s annual pétanque tournament has also been canceled, while the fate of the Amelia Island Museum of History’s Holiday Home Tour has yet to be determined. He said professional or college sports events planned for Northeast Florida will not bring visitors to the island in large numbers.
Langley told the TDC Board there are three options regarding Dickens on Centre:
• The festival could be “reimagined” with an expanded footprint to allow for social distancing, adjustments of entertainment, and changes to logistics. This option could result in some economic impact, he
• Dickens could become a virtual event with live-streamed events and vendors and businesses offering online shopping, allowing the TDC to maintain brand awareness.
• The event could be completely canceled with just the downtown Christmas lights being displayed this year and then resumed in 2021.
“We didn’t present the idea of keeping things as they are,” Langley said. “With the current structure, the product just doesn’t work. We want to do all we can to protect the brand. I think our gut feeling is to cancel the event.”
Langley believes the work involved in presenting a virtual event would be “onerous” and would not produce a quality event. Prerecording events would have to be done soon, so a decision to keep some elements such as performances to be broadcast in December needs to be made as soon as possible.
Board member and Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that, depending on the necessary lead time, there could still be time to make a decision about the festival. Contracts with vendors must be signed before Oct. 1.
“Should it be canceled, you are sending a positive message to the community,” Kreger said.
Board member and City Commissioner Chip Ross said some members of the community might not see it that way. Some people, he said, believe the recent cancellation of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville was a “not a good thing.”
Board member and Fernandina Beach Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff said online shopping is a great opportunity for vendors and downtown businesses, especially in light of the reduced foot traffic Dickens on Centre usually provides.
Filkoff cautioned against canceling the Christmas lights display that is traditional in downtown Fernandina Beach. “If we make the lights go away, it will be like the Island of Misfit Toys,” she said. “Everybody would lose their minds.”
Langley told the TDC board that his staff would gather more information and present more ideas at its August meeting.
Langely also presented a financial report showing that, while hospitality businesses have taken a hit due to decreased travel during the pandemic, the picture is beginning to look a bit brighter.
In March, “bed tax” collections were down 41.6%. They were down 90.4% in April and 60.2% in May, but were only down 15.6% in June. Langley said the TDC has adjusted its 2020 budget in light of the decreased revenue. “I told my team, you don’t go fishing when there’s a hurricane outside,” Langley said, explaining the adjusted 2020 budget is based on 40% of revenue that was projected when the budget was created.
The TDC has decreased its budget for the 2021 fiscal year in expectation of a 37.5% drop in revenue, to $4.75 million. The total TDC 2021 budget proposed was $7,832,500, a 12.6% decrease from last year’s budget. The 2021 budget includes $4.71 million in marketing and $1.4 million in spending on the island’s beaches.
The budget was unanimously approved and will go to the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners for approval. TDC Board Chairman and County Commission Chairman Danny Leeper thanked Langley for the job the TDC has done “in these unprecedented times.”
“My team has done a tremendous job,” Langley said. “We’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do by the city, the county or our stakeholders. It’s not an exaggeration to say there were times we were working 24/7 to respond to issues that came up. We felt like we were quarantined in the office instead of at home. We’ve been through flu viruses, we got through 9/11, hurricanes. We’ll get through this and come back stronger than ever.”