RIP Cloudland Canyon Arts Fair

Managing Ranger Brad Gibson of Cloudland Canyon says it's not fair to blame the festival's demise on the park.

The Dade Planet ran an article last week announcing the end of Cloudland Canyon’s Mountain Art & Craft Celebration, an arts-and-crafts fair staged each year at the canyon by the nonprofit Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Festival organizer Harry Abell, vice president of the Friends group, had posted on the event’s website that the Friends had asked park management and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for certain improvements to parking for the fair. “These could not be accommodated and hence the Celebration will not continue,” Abell wrote on the website.

He told The Planet much the same. Parking had been a problem at the fair since it began in 2013, said Abell. The festival was held in and around a group shelter, and the parking area consisted of a grassy field behind it which turned to mud when the weather was wet. The Friends had experimented with shuttling guests from further away in the park, said Abell, then last year made improvements to the parking area at their own expense, and the park hadn’t liked those, either. Now, concluded Abell, the Friends had presented several other suggestions for improvements, the park had rejected them, and the Friends had decided to end the festival.

“That’s not even close to what happened,” said Brad Gibson, managing ranger for Cloudland Canyon State Park. “He was just venting.”

The Planet had not been able to reach Gibson for comment before the original article, but the ranger called back subsequently.

Gibson acknowledged the problems parking and the Friends’ efforts to shuttle festival-goers from elsewhere in the park—“They were causing traffic problems”—but said the major dissatisfaction with the situation had come not from the park but from the vendors. “The whole thing hinges on the vendors, not on us at all,” he said. “It had nothing to do with us.”

And as far as making the grassy area next to the festival site more suitable for parking, Gibson said the field is a grazing area for wildlife and it would not have been proper for a state park to dismiss that. “I can’t just make that into a parking lot,” he said.

But he said one of the options the Friends group had presented him had struck him as a fair compromise and he had agreed to it: Resodding the whole field to make it more resistant to mud, closing off part of it to parking and using the rest. As far as he was concerned, said Gibson, he was just waiting for spring to start the process.

Meanwhile, though, said the ranger, the Friends group unilaterally decided to pull out of the arts fair business. “They all voted no as a board, not to do it,” he said.

Thus, said Gibson, he felt it was unfair to blame park management for the festival’s demise. “We bent over backwards to make that work,” he said.

Gibson said he knows the all-volunteer Friends group is bending over backwards to support the park, too. “Everybody knows I’ve got the best Friends group of any park in the state,” he said. “I tell them at every meeting how much I love my Friends group.”

And he appreciates events that the Friends stage for the park, said Gibson. “I completely support them,” he said. “I just want to make sure they plan things right.”

Connie Ward, current president of Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park, said she feels sure Gibson does appreciate the Friends, adding the group had worked well with preceding rangers also, and indicated she did not blame him for the death of the arts fair. “There were a lot of things involved,” she said. “It’s not a real feasible event to keep going.”

The board had especially felt the fair was un sustainable without the efforts of Harry Abell and his wife, Dena, who had done the lion’s share of the work. “In my mind, Hary and Dena were the champions of it,” said Ms. Ward.

Abell had said the arts fair made about $45,000 for the park the years the Friends put it on, and Ms. Ward agreed it had been a good revenue-generator. But raking in money was not the prime function of the Friends group, she said. The Friends promote and support the park in other ways, such as providing and manning recycling services, instructional programs at the park’s interpretive center, hikes, races and the enormously popular fall hayrides now at the park each Saturday through Nov. 4.

It is not, in short, as if the Friends had nothing to do. “We don’t want to run our volunteers ragged, either,” said Ms. Ward.

The Mountain Art & Craft Celebration ran for four years, with 2013-15 being fall festivals, 2016 skipped as the Friends, perplexed by the parking problem, transformed it into a spring affair, and the final avatar, 2017, taking place last May.

So the fair is dead, and from the tenor of dialogue with both park and Friends group , it is unlikely to spring back to life any time soon.

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