Sweet Corn Days cancelled following council decision, public backlash

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

In the aftermath of a contentious public debate, similar to those playing out across America, in town halls, community gathering spaces, and most notoriously, on social media, the Sweet Corn Days (SCD) Committee, “with heavy hearts,” made the controversial decision to cancel this year’s planned festival, in what could be a decision with a lasting impact on Elkader.

The decision seems to have fractured the community into opposing sides, as the SCD Committee, in a Facebook post, discussed their disappointment, anger and sadness at having “felt cornered” into the decision by the city council. 

It was a decision SCD did not anticipate making, considering a few weeks ago, on June 22, all five council members approved the event liquor license. It was a show of support that prompted SCD to continue with a public meeting on June 30—where no council members spoke out publicly against the event—and the committee vote on July 1, where it was decided, despite impassioned public opposition and the Clayton County Board of Health’s recommendation to cancel, to move forward. 

Since that moment, SCD has spent about $1,800 on the festival, which the committee is trying to recoup through community donations. 

Yet, the shifting support by the council was not entirely unforeseen, and signs had emerged that the event was facing council opposition before a single dollar was spent. 

During an interview, Danielle Shea, chairperson for SCD, said she was alerted by a reliable source on June 29, “that a council member was in favor of cancelling the event.” As Shea put it, it was “the first sign of problems,” but, she continued, “We felt reassured on May 22 they would support it no matter what we decided.” The July 1 committee vote, which was “not close,” came and went and SCD pressed on. 

Soon though, rumors began circulating about a second council member withdrawing support. At that point, Shea made contact with four of the five council members on July 9, to gauge support.  She maintained there was still no clear sign the council would deny the permits.

So when the sudden reversal of fortune occurred, some committee members were caught off guard. However, problems beyond wavering council members were already present, most notably in the polling data cited by SCD and its supporters. Shea publicly stated that roughly 81 percent of businesses polled were in favor of holding Sweet Corn Days and 78 percent of volunteers favored moving forward. A closer examination of the polling data reveals a troublingly low response rate, which cannot be relied upon to demonstrate the overwhelming public support being presented. Regarding the business poll, there was a 30 percent response rate, meaning only 26 of the 85 businesses polled even bothered to respond. As for the poll of volunteers, it had a 26 percent response rate.  

There were also many community members that expressed worry prior to July 13, when the permits were denied for SCD. Some furiously took to social media and email to express their opposition, suggesting that SCD wasn’t “taking the pandemic seriously,” and that the committee “could not care less about children and the elderly.” One emailer even said SCD “could most likely be a celebration of death.” 

The council’s decision and the pressure eventually led Shea and the SCD Committee to conclude, on July 15, that “there was no way to continue. No way to protect our brand, be fiscally responsible and protect the community with the hurdles that the city council put before us.” 

Among committee members there was disagreement, as the vote to cancel wasn’t unanimous. Two of the 13 members actually voted to continue SCD, even without the permits. It was a position Shea herself held shortly after the council meeting, declaring, “we don’t need your approval to use the park,” to the council members. 

While proceeding with limitations was discussed, it was ultimately deemed not possible or fiscally responsible. Shea spoke of the difficulties in moving events further into the park, deciding which events to eliminate and keep and the financial impact of closing the event down at 9 p.m. 

The hurdles became insurmountable, as did the public pressure, which left committee members feeling “underappreciated” and emotionally distraught, like they failed the community. One committee member said, “People just don’t understand the time and commitment it takes to put on Sweet Corn Days.” 

Shea herself wondered how she went from winning the Clayton County Register Good Neighbor Award in January of this year to becoming the town villain a few months later. 

In a statement, Mayor Josh Pope said, “I express my sincere appreciation to the Sweet Corn Days Committee and all the volunteers. They have done everything asked of them and more during these controversial times to ensure an enjoyable event…As I’ve said before, Elkader is and has always been a community that cares for one another. I truly hope we remember this as we continue to make difficult decisions as we move forward.” 

Council member Bob Hendrickson added, “It is an unfortunate event…I appreciate everything SCD does and hope others in the community realize the value they bring to it. I have heard that SCD has received negative comments and this is undeserved…Neither side was completely right and neither side was completely wrong.” 

While SCD might continue in some form in the future, it might be without some of this year’s committee members. Shea spoke at the council meeting of being “worn out.” When asked if she would return, she said she didn’t want to make a decision with “fogged judgment,” and needed some “time and space” to collect her thoughts. Given the controversial nature of the subject matter and COVID-19 itself, other committee members shied away from providing statements. 

In a heartfelt email Shea sent to all committee members, which she shared for publication, she told them, “Thank you! Right now, more than anything, the world needs good people, with good hearts, who respect each other and are able to understand just because someone may see the world differently than you do, it doesn’t make them wrong or you right…I am proud of the team we have built. It’s awesome to be able to work alongside all of you for the betterment of our community.”

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