'Disappointment and anger': Cedarburg business owner targeted after Strawberry Festival canceled

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CEDARBURG, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A controversy in Cedarburg centers around the decision to cancel Strawberry Festival 2021, which was slated for June 26 and 27.

The Festivals of Cedarburg Board of Directors voted unanimously Wednesday evening to cancel the popular festival, which would bring about 50,000 people a day to downtown Cedarburg in a normal year.

Board President Jim Pape released a statement on social media saying the decision has been "very misunderstood and has caused disappointment and anger." He said some of the accusations have been directed at the festival's executive director, BJ Homayouni and her business, Union House.

Homayouni typically spends months preparing for the festival, which is the main revenue source for the non-profit Festivals of Cedarburg.

"No festival no job, right? So I did get to speak my piece and say why I think we should have the festival, but that doesn't change the voting process, nor do I get a vote in the process," she said.

She is not a voting member of the board, but it appears people didn't understand that and starting threatening to boycott her business.

"People were really emotional about the loss of Strawberry Festival," she explained.

Pape called on the community not to attack Homayouni for something over which she had no control.

"It's not fair, and it shouldn't happen," Pape said.

A few months ago, the board marked April 21 as the day it would make a decision one way or another whether it would hold the festival because it needed to allow time for planning. 

The non-profit that runs the festival is made up of Homayouni and two other part-time employees, and she said it takes several months to plan an event of this magnitude. 

"The two employees that I have working for us are our new employees so we're training as we're going. So it's very difficult to even shorten that window by a little bit," she said. "Time is really critical in getting things done. There's so many elements to the festival that people don't even realize that we're responsible for."

The board debated postponing the festival until July or August but ultimately decided there were too many "unknowns," Pape said.

The decision came down to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control or Ozaukee County not recommending large events.

"We really wanted to do it, and we knew a lot of businesses depend on out festivals to help them through the year, especially this year 28 but ... we thought we would have an overwhelming number of people and to control the number was almost impossible when you have an open community like ours," Pape said.

Homayouni commended the board for "sticking by their guns," as they had decided at a previous board meeting that the CDC guidelines would be the deciding factor in their decision.

"They can't predict what June is going to look like, so they had to make a decision based on that," she said.

Troy Reissmann, owner of the Shinery in downtown Cedarburg, said festivals typically account for about 25 percent of income for the local businesses and keep people coming back to Cedarburg. Reissmann also owns an Airbnb that will miss out on revenue during the weekend of the festival in June.

"This (board) meeting of nine people -- a lot of them that don't have skin in the game, let's face it -- they made this decision not thinking about other people," Reissmann said.

He started a petition hoping to get the festival back on, and people started coming to his shop the moment it opened Friday afternoon to sign the petition. He said business owners should have a voice in the decision, and he believes it comes back to personal choice.

"As an adult, we have the choice to go to the festival, we have the choice to stay home. As a store owner I have the choice to either stay open that day and mandate strongly the masks and social distancing or have the choice to close, but we weren't given that choice," he said.

Homayouni said the Strawberry Festival will still have a virtual component, and she and her staff are now focusing their energy on Wine and Harvest festival in September and Oktoberfest.

Cedarburg Mayor Mike O'Keefe told CBS 58 he understands it was a difficult decision to cancel the festival, but he's "disappointed." He notes the festival would be in open air and many people will be vaccinated by June.

"I was hoping that Cedarburg could take a courageous step toward normalization," he said.

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