The anticipated 10th year of Middlebury’s Chili Fest has been squashed, as the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) announced the difficult decision to temporarily suspend the celebratory event and replace it with a new “Winter Fest” this year instead.
Karen Duguay, marketing director of BMP, cited the installation of temporary bridges and the feedback the event organizers had received from vendors as the main factors in this decision. She explained that the temporary bridges have resulted in steeper hills and a narrow roadway, which is not conducive to setting up tents and tables.
“I think that the start of construction has caused some nervousness among restaurants and shop owners. The more we can all support those businesses, now and throughout the project, the better!” Duguay said.
According to Duguay, Chili Fest vendors have reported feeling burned out by the event. Although fun and conducive to community building, the event requires extensive time and financial commitments from local restaurant competitors year after year.
“Without vendors who can make a lot of chili and staff their booths, we really don’t have an event,” Duguay commented. “We’ll figure out if it’s an event that can come back based on the downtown landscape and the feelings of restaurants and other vendors.”
Since announcing the temporary suspension of the event, organizers of BMP have received some disappointed responses. They hope to respond to the complaints with Winter Fest in February and another new event in April.
“People are understandably disappointed. It’s such a fun annual event in Middlebury with the streets closed off and everyone out enjoying chili, music and friends,” Duguay said. “We’re planning to host a block party in April to try and retain some of those things we all loved, but in a more local-to-Middlebury way, versus the Chili Fest that has had a more statewide appeal.”
Before April, disheartened chili-eaters will also have the opportunity to celebrate the inaugural Winter Fest that will serve as a replacement for Chili Fest on Saturday, Feb. 24, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. This new celebration will consist of things like skating, snow sculpture contests for teams, obstacle courses, nature walks, relay races, food, music, snowman building and more, according to Duguay. After Winter Fest, which will be held at Middlebury’s Recreation Park, there will be a pub crawl with food and beverages from local restaurants.
“Winter Fest will be a celebration of all things winter in Middlebury. … Our intention for Winter Fest is that it becomes an event that can hold different [types of] appeal to everyone,” said Duguay.
The marketing director explained further that the daytime events of Winter Fest are targeted mostly toward families, while the evening pub crawl should appeal to adults. When the event starts to grow, the organizers will expand the festivities to span over a few days and make the crowd base larger. The Middlebury Winter Fest is modeled on a Winter Fest in Rutland that is several days long, according to Duguay.
Although Winter Fest promises success, there is still hope for the return of the Chili Fest in later years when participants and organizers are ready to take on the added festivities. The current event organizers will need committed people to help them plan the event if it is to be brought back, and the restaurants and vendors will have to be willing and excited to participate as well.
“I’m hoping that taking a break from the event will let everyone recharge and then be more energized for it when the construction is over,” Duguay commented.
For anyone eager for a winter community event in the near future, Duguay noted that Midd Night Stroll will take place on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. This night includes shopping with discounts, pop-ups and free tastings, and typically brings college students together with the rest of the community.
Duguay notes that the Middlebury community relies on college students. BMP can always use the help of students in planning special events like Chili Fest or Winter Fest and in fostering community development in general.
“I think the most important thing that college students can do is [to] support local businesses,” Duguay said.