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How COVID-19 canceled Blacksburg tradition Steppin' Out

Downtown Blacksburg Inc. Executive Director on shutting down a town institution



Blacksburg, VA., June 5, 2020 – The intersection of N Main Street and College Avenue – where, in a typical year, Steppin' Out would feature bands and other performances. Photo: Andy Hammel

For the first time in the event's 40-year run, Downtown Blacksburg Inc. announced that summer festival Steppin' Out would be canceled in 2020.

Downtown Blacksburg Inc. Executive Director Casey Jenkins went into detail about how the cancellation process looked.

"Quite extensive, is the short answer," Jenkins said. "How we arrived at that decision was really multifaceted. We had, of course, a public safety concern that we needed to address. Steppin' Out usually brings in about forty to forty-five thousand people each August. Obviously, in our current climate with (COVID-19), that was not something we were comfortable doing."

"We haven't had a breakout here ​like we have seen in some other portions of the state," Jenkins added. "We didn't want to be traceable as to the reason why there might be an outbreak in southwest Virginia."

Jenkins emphasized again that 'public safety will always come first', before delving into other facets of the decision.

"Other factors of the decision were financial, as well," Jenkins said. "We rely heavily on sponsorships for Steppin' Out, to run a good event and also make money as an organization. To request sponsorships of folks in these financially hard times as well, that really wasn't feasible."

“The reason Steppin’ Out was created was to generate profitability for the small downtown merchants and businesses, in a time that’s otherwise very quiet,” Jenkins explained. “Steppin’ Out was ‘let’s bring all these crowds of people to generate cash flow.’”

“It was a very hard decision to cancel Steppin’ Out knowing how much businesses rely on that event and the revenue it brings in on those particular days,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins then discussed the consideration that Downtown Blacksburg Inc. had given to rescheduling the event or running it at a reduced capacity – both options which he said were considered.

“What the organization and the board, what we all decided, was that Steppin’ Out has this great reputation. To try and do it on a smaller scale almost taints the reputation a bit, as far as what people’s expectations of Steppin’ Out are,” Jenkins said. “It was better to – and with all the health risks as well – it was better to cancel the event than try to do it poorly.”

As far as the finality of the decision, Jenkins asserted that, even if the health concerns in question were to disappear overnight, calling Steppin’ Out back on and having it ready by August wasn’t realistic.

“Steppin’ Out, as large as it is and with the other stakeholders that are involved in helping us put it together, the planning phase usually starts each year in December,” Jenkins said. “At this point, even if there was zero health risk at play, we would not have sufficient time to put it together to bring it to the level people expect it always to be at.”

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