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Given a typical Memorial Day weekend, Lisa Konicki, staff, and volunteers at the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce would be consumed with the annual Virtu Art Festival, held in the 14-acre Wilcox Park in downtown Westerly.

It infuses more than $6 million into the local economy and provides a showcase for some of the area’s most gifted artists.

But it is not a typical Memorial Day weekend, and the Art Festival fell victim to COVID-19 … for now. If up to Konicki, the governor will allow the festival to go on later this summer, with precautions that assure social distancing and safeguards.

The Ocean Community Chamber has stood out among chambers, promoting local businesses with Facebook Live visits; a Virtu art show, also on Facebook Live; a user friendly guide to restaurants offering take-out; along with several other efforts to stimulate business for a beleaguered small business community, devastated by the impact of the coronavirus.

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And Konicki is a bulldog and cheerleader, fighting for her small business community. We caught up with Konicki to talk about her efforts to convince the governor to allow a Virtu Art Festival later this summer.

WUN:   What would a modified festival look like?   

Konicki: The 14-acre park could easily accommodate all 185 artists if we placed them 20 feet apart and/or staggered them in rows that are not symmetrical.  The Farmers Market in Stonington CT, the neighboring town, features art, cheese and fresh vegetables and has been running each weekend with safety measures and commercial success.   We do not want to split the number of artists in half and host Virtu over two weekends because it doubles all event expenses for trash, toilets, tent rental, staff, marketing, etc.

One way “aisles” at the art show could be created.  Separate entrance and exit points.  Artists could be required to wear gloves and masks, or whatever is consistent with Farmers Market rules.

WUN: When would you consider holding the festival?  

Konicki: If given the green light, I feel we could pull it off as early as June 27 and 28, but a date in July would also be fine.  The artists are desperate for an opportunity to present their works and there is no better, larger, or more beautiful location than Wilcox Park.  We are nimble and creative so we could make it happen.

WUN: Someone from DBR was apparently quoted as equating the festival to a “flea market” and how difficult it is to control crowds, versus a farmers’ market. I do not see the art festival as a flea market, but the bigger question is crowd control? It is easy to visual spacing of vendors, but how do you control crowd size?  

Konicki: I take serious offense to anyone referring to Virtu as a flea market, given that flea markets generally sell items that are commercially mass manufactured and often imported.  Virtu is a first-rate art festival with professional artisans and craftspersons exhibiting their quality original works of art, all made here in the USA. 

In terms of Farmers Markets being allowed to take place in Lippitt Park in Providence, but Virtu art show being banned in Wilcox Park in Westerly …. With all due respect to those making the rules, it is excruciatingly unfair and illogical to suggest that selling carrots under a tent on six acres is safer than selling artwork under a tent on 14 acres.  We continue to advocate for COMMON SENSE COMMERCE and will politely but persistently point out these striking inconsistencies that, when applied broadly with a one-size-fits-all formula, have a devastating effect on our local economy.  One formula does not fit all. Local authorities and government should be entrusted to develop plans for safe execution of events in cases such as Virtu where a 14-acre park assures it can be done exceeding all reasonable guidelines.

WUN: Why is this important to the community, and Rhode Island? 

Konicki: (1) Virtu generates $6.6 million for the economy, which was documented in 2017 with an independent economic impact study by Witan Intelligence.  Retailers, restaurants, sign companies, tent companies and many other businesses benefit from this event.  The economic impact on 185 artists that rely on this income is significant.  Artists have shared that they feel abandoned and stripped of their ability to provide for themselves.  They are an important part of the economy and we are doing our best to help them with our virtual Virtu Art Show, taking place on Sundays via Facebook Live.  More than 25 artists have been featured so far with 45-minute videos.

(2} Arts are good for the soul and taking a walk in the park also has mental and physical benefits.

(3) Rhode Island is known for being innovative and resilient.  Our Chamber is also innovative, resilient and has a reputation for being responsible with large scale undertakings.  Working together with Commerce RI, Westerly should be demonstrating to the state and the nation that we can use common sense measures to manage some activities safely.  We will never defy a government order, and we are not being critical of the Governor.  However, it is not just our right, it is our responsibility to advocate for our community and safe initiatives that aid its economic recovery.

WUN: Virtu provides significant revenue for the Chamber. The loss of the festival coupled with the loss of other activities is creating financial hardship for all chambers.

 Konicki: The Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce is known for producing large scale community events.  We have lost over $90,000 in three months from annual fundraising events that were forced canceled by the Governor’s orders (Fusion, Duck Race, Virtu, Great Escape Auction, Business After Hours) yet there is zero compensation to our budget from the state and Chambers of Commerce do not qualify for the federal PPP program.  This enormous financial blow comes at a time when small businesses need us the most, and ironically, our hours have extended to 12-hour days, seven days a week for the last nine weeks. Yet, we are working hand in glove with Commerce RI, happily taking on additional work of distributing PPE to Rhode Island employers from our office.  We store the items, review Covid Control Plans, collect company PPE request forms, and distribute the items to small businesses. Given the totality of all the circumstances outlined, it is more than fair for us to ask for re-consideration of one of our major fundraising events given that our town leaders unanimously believe we can present it safely.

Even IF the federal government were to change the PPP availability to include Chambers of Commerce in the future, we would still not qualify because it requires bringing the laid off employees back to work.  How can I bring back a Full-time events manager when all her job duties relate to organizing large events that are now banned?  How can I bring my school to career coordinator when her programs have been eliminated due to distance learning?  It is a horrible catch 22. 

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