By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
The Leonard Strawberry Festival has been canceled again this year, but a smaller “Block Party” event is planned in its place for the same date, July 17.
This is not the end of the festival, assured Leonard Village President Mike McDonald and Addison Fire Chief Jerry Morawski. Barring any future further issues with the coronavirus, the festival will return next year, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the annual event that began in 1952.
The decision to cancel was made a couple months ago, when Michigan was still spiking in COVID-19 cases. The Addison Township Firefighters Association said they were not comfortable participating this year by serving strawberry sundaes to the public, as they traditionally do. The Strawberry Festival Committee felt it just wouldn’t be a strawberry festival without the fire department’s participation, so they decided to cancel the festival for the second year in a row.
The pandemic deeply affected the fire department’s operations. Close contacts have led to frequent quarantines of crew members, severely limiting the number of available personnel to cover shifts in an already understaffed department.
“We didn’t want to take that extra risk, especially with the new (coronavirus) variants circulating,” said Fire Chief Jerry Morawski. “Our main job for the community is to be ready to go when they need help. So if I have people in quarantine or sick, I wouldn’t be able to help out the residents.”
Many other festivals are going forward this summer, but the difference, Morawski said, is that “their firefighters aren’t serving up sundaes. The main attraction at our strawberry festival, really, is the strawberry sundaes that we serve up.”
In May, Sgt. Charles Johnson died from COVID complications. “Obviously,” McDonald said, “the loss that they’ve suffered with the death of one of their firefighters from COVID . . . it’s really weighing heavily on them now.”
The Leonard Village Council affirmed the decision, voting unanimously to “follow the direction of the firefighter’s association and fire department and support their decision on the basis of public safety and health and welfare of our community.”
“It’s a tough decision to make,” McDonald said. “It’s a tough thing for the community because we all know how much the festival means to the community. I think we all recognize that.”
The Firefighters Association said they had no objection to the festival, or another event, going forward without them. But the festival committee hadn’t made any large monetary commitments or deposits because they didn’t know for sure if the festival would still happen, so they ran out of time to reserve entertainment like bouncy houses.
One thing that had been reserved, however, was the stage. So they decided to continue with a smaller event – a block party – just for the community. There will be no parade, but the street will be closed and perhaps several bands will perform. The event will take place between 5-10p.m. July 17. During the day, residents will probably have their usual garage sales.
Even though the Strawberry Festival is canceled this year, it is not permanent. McDonald acknowledged there had been some discussions over the years about whether the festival was generating enough money to make it worth the members’ efforts. But Chief Morawski insisted the event is well worth the effort just for community outreach in getting members of the fire department to meet residents and showing appreciation for the support they have received over the years with new fire stations and new equipment through millages. “Next year, our plans are definitely to go forward,” he said. “We miss our Strawberry Festival, for sure.”
McDonald agreed. “We have all kinds of support for it, we’re going to make sure the firefighters continue to have the support of the village to go on with this event, so I think the future is secure for the Strawberry Festival.”
By James Hanlon