Festivals in Southwestern Ontario hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic are getting a much-needed revival as Ontario injects $7 million for events across the province.
With a focus on digital alternatives or festivals that provide a glow amid the dark year brought on by the pandemic, local events were big winners in the Reconnect festival and event program.
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Events in London, Stratford, Woodstock, Chatham and Goderich received program funding.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has had an unprecedented, devastating impact on arts, tourism and culture in the province. Our sectors were hit first, hit hardest, and will take the longest to recover,” said Lisa MacLeod, minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries.
In London, funding will support the airshow’s shift to a drive-in model, dubbed Skydrive, and the online concert series run through TD Sunfest and Revive Live.
The Reconnect program aims to help festivals adapt to new public-health measures with virtual, drive-through or other safe offerings.
This round of funding supports events through March and includes retroactive support for events from August of last year, helping them pay bills and bounce back in 2021.
Lights On Stratford, a light show throughout the city, was the big winner, receiving nearly $150,000. The event launched in November, but was cancelled at the end of December when the second provincewide lockdown began.
The Lights On website indicates the festival will return “next winter.”
Other holiday light shows funded included ones in Goderich, Woodstock and Chatham, plus Winterfest Windsor.
“I was so happy to get it,” said Lisa Lester, who organized the Armoury in Lights drive-in experience in Chatham-Kent. “It helps pay the bills.”
The sold-out projection light show was held just before Christmas, but Lester said the funding — she was approved in December but is receiving it now — will allow this year’s event to be “bigger and better” and for her to explore hosting summer events, too.
Holly Doty, executive director of Airshow London, said its funding will be used retroactively for September’s drive-in airshow but will help “kickstart” the 2021 event that she expects to follow a similar model.
“Knowing we have the support of the government makes us say, ‘We can do this. We can be safe. We can bring a great experience and we can be innovative,’” she said.
It’s critical events and festivals don’t fall by the wayside during the COVID-19 pandemic because they’re cornerstones of communities and spur economic activity, Doty said.