ERWIN — Thousands of visitors will soon descend upon Erwin’s new-look downtown for crafts, food and music in what some have referred to as a “homecoming for Unicoi County.”
The 36th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival will be held Friday and Saturday in downtown Erwin, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. both days.
Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said last year’s festival drew a crowd of approximately 110,000 attendees, and she said organizers have undertaken efforts to continue to grow the event. However, she said construction in the downtown area did present a challenge.
Construction on the first phase of the Erwin downtown revitalization project began in mid-May and was completed in mid-September. This phase of the project covered the areas along Main Avenue from Second Street to Gay Street. Work included the installation of new and wider sidewalks, decorative crosswalks and lighting, the installation of a new stormwater system, underground utilities, and new pavement along the roadway.
Another component of the project was the narrowing of the road in the affected area. Around 30 Apple Festival booths were lost between First and Tucker streets.
“With the narrowing of the road, we were not able to get two rows of booths in there because, essentially, with the elimination of the turning lane, we lost about 10 feet of space,” Delp said. “Right now, the road is 22 feet wide, so if we put in a 10-foot booth on each side, we only have a 4-foot walking section. For safety reasons and crowd control management, there’s no way we can do that.”
But organizers turned this challenge into an opportunity, Delp said. She said some impacted vendors were relocated to other spaces along Main Avenue. Organizers also created an entirely new section, which they are calling the commons area, in the parking lot behind the Unicoi County Courthouse at the corner of Church and Gay streets. Delp said the commons area will include food and craft vendors, a food court, and a professional touring stage will be set up in the area to serve as a venue for a variety of musical entertainment.
“It will almost be like a mini-festival within a festival,” Delp said.
Delp said she also believes the enhanced downtown will draw more visitors to the shops located in downtown Erwin during the festival. She said the wider sidewalks should lead to greater foot traffic in the area.
“It will bring more people downtown,” said Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Dawn Edwards. “Even though we’ve had people passing through, they want to see what it looks like now.”
The aesthetics of the downtown area and the addition of the commons area are not the only changes to this year’s Apple Festival. Edwards said CenturyLink is providing wifi on the festival grounds, so visitors will have access to free wifi throughout the festival. And for attendees looking for a specific type of food or craft — there’s an app for that. Edwards said software developer Joe Barrett has been working on the Erwin Apple app, which will provide those who download with a searchable map of the festival grounds. Users can enter keywords pertaining to a type of food or craft they may be seeking, and the app will pinpoint booths providing the items. The app will also provide a map for all booths set up at the festival, and users can click on each booth icon to see what is for sale at the booth.
Many festival-favorites will remain in place, including the gospel music stage on Love Street. But Delp said while popular groups will return to the festival this year, she said festival organizers worked with promoters in the Nashville area to bring new acts to the gospel stage, including the Tribute Quartet and the Beelers, both of which will perform on Friday.
The stage at the Gathering Place Park will also continue to serve as a venue for individual performers and dancers.
Many vendors who have set up at the festival in the past will also make their return this year. Edwards said the festival is “completely full” on available booth spaces, and vendor retention from year-to-year is more than 60 percent. She said these vendors will offer a variety of arts and crafts and a wide array of food.
“It’s not just barbeque, hamburgers and french fries,” Edwards said. “You get a big selection.”
Delp said a number of locals plan high school and family reunions around the Apple Festival. She also said a number of “chance reunions” happen at the festival as old acquaintances may see each other for the first time in years.
“I know I say this same thing every year, but it is so true — I think that people that live here, grow up here, if they move away, you always plan to go home for Christmas, you plan to go home for Thanksgiving,” Delp said. “I think people who grew up here also plan to go home for the Apple Festival.”
Admission to the 36th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival is free. For more information on the festival, including a schedule of acts performing on the gospel stage and the commons area stage, visit www.unicoicounty.org or call the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000.