Ligonier Borough officials have a difficult decision to make in the next month over whether or not to host Fort Ligonier Days this year.
For 60 years, the annual three-day fall festival has commemorated the anniversary of the Oct. 12, 1758, Battle of Fort Ligonier, a significant event for a town boasting more than 260 years of history.
It’s a major tourism drawn for the Ligonier Valley and western Pennsylvania and boosts local businesses, who rely on those three days for a major percentage of their annual income.
However, the numerous food booths, craft vendors and living history displays also bring more than 100,000 people to the half-square mile town over the long weekend — a serious concern for officials with the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has afflicted tens of thousands of people in Pennsylvania alone.
While Fort Ligonier Days has not yet been canceled for 2020, Ligonier Borough Council’s Fort Ligonier Days Committee will confer with festival organizers over the next month about its fate. Council voted unanimously to make a final decision about canceling the event or developing alternate plans at its June 11 meeting or no later than July 1.
Council discussed the heavy issue Thursday night, with members joining the meeting remotely over the Zoom online conferencing system.
Council members offered several viewpoints, some inclined to outright cancel rather than risk public health, others hesitating to scratch the festival completely just yet, given how quickly the COVID-19 situation has changed county-, state- and nationwide over the past two months.
Council president Sam St. Clair said he’s lost sleep over the question.
“It’s a great affair for the community, but I can’t myself, in good conscience, invite possibly 100,000 people into the community and possibly infect even one person with something. I feel that we need to act in a very timely fashion and resolve this issue,” St. Clair said.
On today, May 15, Westmoreland County enters Pennsylvania’s yellow phase of reopening, where gatherings of more than 25 people are not permitted. It remains unknown when the county will move into the green phase, which prohibits congregations of more than 100 people.
“Even if you’re in green, this is an event that simply can’t happen,” councilman Jeff Craig said.
“I think it’s a little too early for us to make the decision, personally. A lot of things can change. While I don’t see it changing enough to make it happen in its former glory, I think it’s just a little too early to say absolutely not in no fashion whatsoever,” councilman Matt Smith said.
“I would like to just hear what alternatives or what we could do for it to happen. I don’t think anyone wants to cancel Fort Days, doesn’t want it to happen, or that none of us understands the impact that it has on our community, obviously our businesses that are hurting, the fort itself that’s hurting, with having been closed. And we know this brings a lot of people to town, and that’s a great thing, except we don’t know what this virus is going to look like in the fall,” councilwoman Mariah Fisher said.
Fort Ligonier Days organizers have urged that more discussions and expert input from the state are needed before council makes their final decision.
Mark Sorice, president of the Fort Ligonier Days Inc. board of directors, said FLD Inc. has contacted Pennsylvania Department of Health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine for guidance to see if the festival can be held in a safe manner before arbitrarily canceling it. FLD Inc. is the nonprofit organization that plans and executes the annual event.
“For the benefit of the community, the benefit of raising revenue for the merchants who have been closed for over 60 days, I’d like to at least explore this opportunity and see what our government and our officials — the health experts — have to say,” Sorice said.
While other regional festivals have been canceled, including the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival at Twin Lakes in Greensburg, some college and professional sports teams are either scheduling or proposing to schedule games later this summer, Sorice pointed out.
Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Haines and Fort Ligonier executive director Henry Scully also weighed in — Scully by letter — both emphasizing how important this event is for the community and encouraging officials to explore all avenues first.
“In addition to financial ramifications, we think it is vital for community spirit to honor this special moment in our town’s history that has been so well memorialized for the past 60 years,” Scully wrote in his letter.
Overall council agreed that more discussions between the Fort Ligonier Days committees, Fort Ligonier officials and the chamber of commerce are needed to come up with a game plan.
While Fort Ligonier Days remains unresolved, council unanimously decided to cancel all Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce events this summer, including Antiques on the Diamond, Summer in Ligonier and The Stroll, while Westmoreland County remains at yellow status. Traffic restrictions for the Sunday evening band concerts were approved only if and when the concerts are held.
However, officials voted 6-1 to allow the new Ligonier Country Market Night Markets on the Diamond — scheduled for the third Thursday evening of each month from June to October — to proceed as planned.
Haines said event volunteers would implement social distancing and safety measures such as directing one-way pedestrian traffic, dispersing crowds of more than 25 people, limiting five people per vendor at a time, and placing an additional table between customers and vendors, who must both wear masks.
St. Clair cast the lone opposed vote, concerned that Ligonier Borough is facing “new and uncharted territory” with COVID-19. Councilwoman Judy Hoffer reluctantly voted yes. Although he was fundamentally in favor of it, Craig felt it needed to be considered in the same light as Fort Ligonier Days.
Ligonier Country Market executive director Cari Frei reminded council that farmer’s markets are considered essential businesses and thus permitted to operate. The night markets only feature producers — no craft vendors or prepared foods.
“I think you guys have done a good job of pivoting from a festival to more strictly a market, which is acceptable under the state guidelines and you guys have followed that to a T,” councilman Nate Sylvester said.
Council also decided to extend the coronavirus emergency declaration for Ligonier Borough through June 11. Town Hall and the courtyard bathrooms will remain closed to the public and vendors until the green phase.
Friendship Park will remain closed as well, as playgrounds are not recommended to open in the yellow phase. Even in the green phase, the borough must consider how to promote social distancing at a facility designed for interaction with kids, as resident Karl Horman pointed out during public comment.
“I think we should not act until we have the green light to go ahead and then proceed how the recommendations come from the federal, state and county governments and pursue in line with their recommendations,” St. Clair said.
The finance committee is exploring options to generate income for Ligonier Borough and may propose selling the former municipal building at 112 North Fairfield Street, Sylvester said. Council voted to have an appraisal done of the building.
That building will serve as Ligonier Borough’s voting location for the June 2 primary election, secretary-treasurer Jan Shaw announced.
Council also voted to reinstate parking meter and permit fees on June 1, to give local businesses a buffer once retailers can start opening to regulated in-person sales on May 15.
Borough committees are also looking at cost-cutting measures, given Ligonier has lost revenue from earned income taxes, parking fines, parking permits and metered parking over the past two months.
The borough extended its contract with West Penn Power for an additional four years, through Dec. 31, 2025, in order to take advantage of all-time-low rates and reduce electricity supply costs by 8.5%.
Council also agreed to extend the real estate tax discount period through Aug. 31; residents will also have until Dec. 31 to pay their 2020 property tax in full without penalty.
Council voted to advertise a new stormwater management ordinance for adoption next month. The EADS Group updated the borough’s stormwater plan to comply with Westmoreland County’s new Act 167 model stormwater ordinance.
The borough’s proposed ordinance is the same as the one that the Ligonier Township Supervisors enacted at their meeting Tuesday, borough engineer Ben Faas said.
Council authorized Fisher to prepare a letter of support for Ligonier Township’s plans to apply for a Pennsylvania Department of Health WalkWorks grant to be used for the planning of an extended walking trail potentially connecting Laughlintown, Ligonier Beach Park, Fort Ligonier, the Diamond and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.
The Ligonier Valley Food Pantry will host another drive-through food distribution at Holy Trinity Parish from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturday, May 16. Council approved the closure of the eastbound lane of West Vincent Street behind the church for the event.
Council adjourned the meeting into an executive session on personnel matters, with no action to be taken afterwards. Thursday’s meeting was the final one for junior councilwoman Izabella Wentzell, as she completes her term and graduates from Ligonier Valley High School.
“I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here, to be included, and really just to learn so much. It has changed my perspective a lot about local government, government in general and kind of where I see myself in the future,” Wentzell said.
Council members thanked her for all of her contributions and for enlightening them during her tenure. “You set the bar pretty high. It’s going to be tough for somebody to fill your shoes,” Craig said.