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Memorial Day weekend festival planned along Animas River


City officials pitched idea to River Reach Foundation

FARMINGTON — Even though the annual Riverfest celebration won't take place in Farmington again this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks as if there will be an Animas River-based celebration on Memorial Day weekend after all.

Officials from the city and the River Reach Foundation, the nonprofit organization that presents Riverfest each year, announced March 18 that a small, two-day festival featuring food trucks and live music will take place at Rocky Reach Landing and River Reach Terrace in Berg and Animas parks May 29-30. The event will not be called Riverfest, and it will not feature many of the attractions that have become synonymous with Riverfest each year, such as children's rides and games, merchandise vendors, raft trips and the duck race.

But the event will serve as the first significant public event in the Farmington area since the pandemic brought most of those activities to a standstill a year ago, including the 2020 edition of Riverfest, which was cancelled. River Reach Foundation President D'Ann Waters announced March 10 that this year's festival was being cancelled, as well.

She said then the organization was considering staging a smaller version of Riverfest in the fall. But Julie Baird, an assistant city manager, and Shaña Reeves, director of the city's Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs department, approached her later and pitched the idea of doing that event Memorial Day weekend, when Riverfest traditionally takes place.

"They felt something could be done on a smaller scale," Waters said, explaining that city officials are confident that San Juan County will continue to make progress on the state's four-tier system for business restrictions during the pandemic.

Last month, the county was still at the Red Level — or most restrictive category — but since then has progressed quickly to the Yellow Level and then the Green Level, which is the second-least restrictive category, based on its rapidly declining rate of infection. Waters said city officials are confident the county will be operating at the Turquoise Level, the least-restrictive category, by late May when the festival is planned.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health website, large entertainment venues are permitted to operate at 75% of capacity for outdoor space under that category. Mass gatherings are still limited to 150 people.

Reeves acknowledged that if San Juan County is operating in the Turquoise Level by the time of the festival, event organizers could be in a situation where they can only allow 150 people to be present at each of the two locations in the park. She also expressed the hope that the county might be free of any restrictions by then.

Regardless of the situation, she and Waters both emphasized the festival would comply with state law and would employ all COVID-19 safe practices.

"Whatever we plan, we'll be in complete alignment with the public health orders," Reeves said. "So maybe at both ends, we'll have to limit it 150 people."

Still in the planning stages

City and foundation officials only reached an agreement on holding the festival on March 17, so most of the details associated with the event haven't been worked out. Reeves said the first planning meeting is set for April 1, and she said city officials would rely on the experience of foundation officials — who have been presenting Riverfest for more than three decades — to pull together the loose ends.

"It's a lot of footwork in a very short amount of time," she said. "But I definitely think it will be worth it. We're delighted the River Reach Foundation considered our proposition and accepted a helping hand from the city. And I think the community will appreciate it."

As part of their proposal to the foundation, city officials included an offer of a cash sponsorship to help the organization offset the loss of donations and sponsorships that it relies on to present Riverfest each year.

If foundation officials had any reservations about presenting a Memorial Day weekend event this year, those seemed to be related to fears that the public might perceive the event as a lesser Riverfest, rather than an alternative to it, perhaps leading to a tarnishing of the Riverfest brand.

"I had a lot of questions, and I think they've answered all our questions," Waters said. "We don't want the public to think this is any way part of Riverfest and be disappointed."

Waters went to great lengths to create distance between the new festival and Riverfest.

"It won't be called Riverfest," she said. "It will have nothing to do with Riverfest whatsoever."

More: Riverfest cancelled again, but smaller event could take place in fall

In fact, planning is at such a preliminary stage that organizers haven't even settled on a name yet. Nor have they determined the hours under which the festival will operate.

"All we know is, it won't be nearly the (number of) people" as there are at Riverfest, she said, an event that attracts upward of 30,000 people for its three-day run each year.

A silver lining for the foundation

Waters said she doesn't know if her foundation will continue to explore the idea of conducting another festival on the river in the fall, which was its original plan in the wake of the decision to cancel this year's Riverfest. But she left open that possibility.

"We're still kind of looking at that," she said.

In any event, she acknowledged she was pleased to be working with the city on a springtime event that will expose people to the Animas River corridor — something her organization considers vital to its mission.

"Every cloud has a silver lining, and I guess the silver lining is this left open the opportunity to do something like this," Waters said. "This is something that will get people walking next to the river, listening to music and getting something to eat."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.