The festival has not recovered since the deadly shooting in 2019. In 2020, COVID-19 canceled the event, and a drive-in version was held in 2021.
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After more than 40 years, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association says financial challenges are forcing organizers to reinvent the centuries-old tradition for 2022 and the foreseeable future.
“Events that people have been used to for these 42-43 years, this model will no longer be used for the festival,” said former association president and current board member Tom Cline. “It will be a smaller, more intimate model.”
“You know, ’19 to ’20 – no revenue. And then in ’21 and doing little events, we were able to make some money,” Cline added. “But it was strictly to help the association recover financially.”
In a statement to reporters, Cline cites “the continuing uncertainties of the pandemic, as well as the City of Gilroy’s prohibitive insurance requirements.”
“When you don’t have money, everything is prohibitively expensive,” Mayor Marie Blankley told ABC7 News.
“Over the past 10 years or so, the big change is that the vacant land adjacent to Christmas Hill Park – where the festival was still held – has started to accommodate developed housing,” she added.
She said the growth has taken away the ability for people to park in the area.
Mayor Blankley said: “And the festival association was losing money every year. So long before 2019 even, they were in a tough spot where they were going to have to change and reinvent and come up with something because the money wasn’t there already.”
The mayor acknowledged how local nonprofits have benefited from past festivals.
“It makes me, it makes the city proud. It’s an event that helps fund so many of our local nonprofits. I mean, I was on the Board of Directors for the Chamber of Commerce. I so know exactly how much money the room made,” Blankley said.
She went on to list a number of non-profit organizations that have received funding, only possible through the festival.
“These are all fundraisers that all of these organizations can no longer rely on to the same degree. And it’s been a blow to everyone,” Blankley told ABC7 News.
However, she explained that the same requirements are asked of all organizers.
“We have to demand insurance for private events. And in the end, no matter what people think of the Garlic Festival, it’s a private event,” she said. “It’s run by a separate board and they make all the decisions. And with the risks that come with all of that, we have to apply evenly to everyone who runs events.”
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Beyond this, Blankley amplified development around Christmas Hill Park brought growth which has since limited the space needed to host the large festival.
Instead, organizers are announcing a golf tournament, concert series and farm-to-table event. These are three smaller-scale settings that some consider too proprietary.
“With the Garlic Festival, you have all kinds of food, you have lots of people, you have different kinds of music,” Cheryl Low said with The Honey Ladies. “Everyone could come together and everyone can.”
“They’re very select people,” Low explained of the changes.
Low said the Garlic Festival was the vendor’s biggest earner for the year. She is currently acting director of operations.
However, after witnessing the fatal shooting in 2019, she told ABC7 News, “I don’t think I could go back. I can’t even get near the park right now.”
We asked Cline what impact the tragedy had on the recently announced changes. Cline only said that the financial challenge was the most important factor.
“You have to be able to do certain things and meet certain criteria. And we couldn’t do that with the insurance. Just the challenges. We had an insurmountable challenge with the venue – finding this venue that would work,” said he declared. added. “Looking at all these different things, we couldn’t find the right match.”
He explained that now is the time to refocus and get back to celebrating garlic and giving back to the community.
“We have something in the past. It’s a great past,” Cline told ABC7 News. “But we can make it work even in a smaller way that still has the same impact.”
Mayor Blankley shared, “Everyone should stop and you know, not look at what’s been lost. Rather, just think about going back – maybe halfway – and rebuilding it, in today’s circumstances… which are very different than when the festival started in the 1980s.”
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