Threat of storms prompts Chamber board to pull plug on festival
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
For many Atmore residents, an autumn without Williams Station Day is like a day without sunshine.
That was the case, literally and figuratively, Saturday (October 26) when a threat of violent weather prompted the first-ever cancellation of the annual event, which has for the past 27 years celebrated the history of the community and has itself become a part of that history.
A storm cell that moved through the area Saturday morning produced a microburst (an intense small-scale downdraft common with thunderstorms and rain showers) and brought intermittent but stiff winds that persisted until mid-morning. The day remained mostly without sunshine, except for a brief peek in the afternoon, and the sidewalks of Pensacola Avenue remained mostly empty.
The cancellation prompted a barrage of angry or querulous comments on social media sites, many of them directed at Emily Wilson, executive director of Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce, the celebration’s sponsor. But Chamber President Jordan Barnett said Monday the decision to pull the plug on the annual event was made by the Chamber’s board.
“Basically, the board of directors evaluated very delicately every aspect — from community to vendors to entertainment, to traveling and the duration of the event,” she said. “It just came down to, the board of directors wanted to keep safety as the priority.”
She admitted the decision to cancel the popular event was a tough one.
“It was very difficult, very hard,” Barnett said. “We were absolutely trying to wait until the last moment possible before doing it because it was such a difficult decision. We had to set aside our emotional attachment and really consider what was the safest, most practical and right decision. We knew it was going to be emotionally difficult for a lot of people to hear.”
The board gave Wilson instructions Friday morning to post an apologetic cancellation notice on the Chamber’s website. Barnett said the executive director had no other say-so in the matter.
“Unfortunately, Emily is going to be the face of it,” Barnett said. “But it wasn’t Emily’s decision. The Chamber operates as a board of directors that Chamber membership has approved to make those difficult decisions. Emily and the Chamber team executed our decision, and I think they executed it well.”
Wilson said Monday the decision was as hard for her and her staff as it was for residents who have become used to spending the day at Williams Station Day.
“Nobody wants to cancel something they’ve spent four months of hard work and lots of hours and effort on,” she said. “The decision to cancel was the board’s decision, and it’s the job of the executive director to work at the direction and discretion of the board.”
According to a person who spoke only under the condition of anonymity, 20 Chamber board members participated in the online vote. Ten were in favor of canceling; eight wanted to postpone; and two wanted to continue as planned.
Wilson said postponement might have been the best idea but noted that the Chamber’s heavy holiday events schedule provided the strongest argument against trying to reschedule the heritage festival.
“We have 28 more events or deadlines in the next 38 days,” she explained. “There just wasn’t a good time to have it.”
Although formal agreements between the Chamber and the vendors explicitly explains that refunds would not be issued in such situations, the Chamber board agreed to “hold” the rental fees and let the vendors use them at next year’s WSD. Any vendor who doesn’t return then will forfeit his or her money.
Wilson said she was told that a prior Williams Station Day had also been canceled, but Mayor Jim Staff said he didn’t think so.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had to cancel Williams Station Day,” the mayor said. “I remember about nine years ago when we had to cancel Mayfest because there was ankle-deep water everywhere, but I don’t know that Williams Station has ever been canceled.”
He said he hated to see the event, which has reportedly drawn as many as 10,000 people in the past, wiped out but agreed that the decision to abort the festival was probably for the best.
“I think it was a good idea,” he said. “The artists can’t display their work when it’s raining, and I just don’t think it could have worked out. That’s just the way it is, though; you can’t control the weather. I guess the Good Lord just didn’t want it to be.”