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Cleghorn Gives Onion Festival Update

Cleghorn Gives Onion Festival Update
SHARING THE FACTS – During his address to the Vidalia Kiwanis Club, Vidalia Onion Festival Committee Chairman Jake Cleghorn shared several trivia facts about the festival’s budget and other details.Photo by Makaylee Randolph
Cleghorn Gives Onion Festival Update
SHARING THE FACTS – During his address to the Vidalia Kiwanis Club, Vidalia Onion Festival Committee Chairman Jake Cleghorn shared several trivia facts about the festival’s budget and other details.Photo by Makaylee Randolph

This year’s Vidalia Onion Festival Chairman Jake Cleghorn provided the Kiwanis Club of Vidalia with an update on the upcoming festival and a “behind the scenes” look at planning for the event during the club’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, January 30.

Cleghorn opened his address by explaining what it takes to be a successful Vidalia Onion Festival Committee chairman. “To be chairman of the Onion Festival, you have to be a redneck and you have to be political,” he said with a laugh. He shared his experience of going to the State Capital in Atlanta to prove that he had both necessary traits.

“Of all the volunteer organizations, every board or group that I’ve been a part of, the one that I enjoy the most and the one that means the most to me is the Vidalia Onion Festival Committee,” he emphasized. “Unless you sit behind the scenes and see all that these people do, you can’t understand it.”

He continued, “Last year, right in the middle of the festival, I lost a family member, but the festival never missed a beat. [The committee] jumped right in, and took off with it… it’s just family; it really is.”

One of the ways which this family-like bond is created among the festival committee is the length of time which is served with the group. “When you see someone involved with the [Vidalia] Onion Festival, know they are a committed person because the way we serve now — going from executive offices through chairman and then into past chair [roles] — they will have served on that committee for 10 years,” Cleghorn explained. “It is a true commitment, and it is hard to get people that are that committed. So, when you see these people on the executive team, or any role on the committee, they are committed to what they do.”

He informed the club that meetings are held monthly throughout the year from May until January, then every other week during February and March. In April, weekly meetings are held to prepare for the festival, and multiple meetings may even be called each week. This number of meetings throughout the year doubles on years when the festival features an air show, as the Air Show Committee itself requires several planning sessions.

Additionally, Cleghorn shared a bit of festival trivia. He told the group that there would be 400 volunteers giving their time during the festival, and that over $24,000 would be spent just on portable bathroom facilities. “There are things that you wouldn’t even think about that we run into that cost money,” he remarked.

He spoke on the budget for the event, which is slated for over $500,000. “We don’t talk a lot about our numbers, but the thing I will tell you is over the last few years [since I came on the board in 2017], the budget has grown,” Cleghorn said. “I didn’t know anything about the festival, and when we had that first meeting about the budget [which was $140,000 in 2017], we threw that number out there and everyone in the room about had a stroke because it was so big.”

Cleghorn stated that every profit earned from the festival was put back into the festival, and that the sponsors and City of Vidalia are huge assets in making the event possible. “We could not do it without their support and what they do for us. There’s a lot of people that do a lot of things, but I’m just telling you, with the size the festival has grown to, we could not afford it without our sponsors, and we could not do it without the resources and assets that the City of Vidalia provides us,” he commented.

He continued, “It takes every single dime of it to make it happen. We’re not doing anything excessive; it just takes that. Even from prior air show years, everything has doubled. Since we started doing this, the cost of everything has gone up.”

Most of Cleghorn’s address was spent discussing the Blue Angels, who will be returning to the festival this year. According to Cleghorn, the Blue Angels actually cost festival organizers very little to bring to Vidalia. “There is a small fee that we pay to the Blue Angels to get them to come, but they come on their dime,” he explained. “All the fuel that goes into a Blue Angel jet or Fat Albert, they pay for it. Every motel room that they are in, they get a government rate for, and they pay for it.”

Part of the reason that the Blue Angels choose to pay for their supplies for the show is because of the exhibition’s mission of recruiting, which is the very reason the pilots perform. “When they come, they want to talk to students and recruit,” Cleghorn emphasized.

He continued to speak on the mission as he shared that having the Blue Angels at the festival means more than merely a successful event. “My dad is a veteran, and there are not many people more patriotic than me,” Cleghorn said. “So, to be a part of this and to realize what they do, and what we’re able to do and help them do, that means a lot to me personally.”

Vidalia Onion Festival Committee Past Chair Andy Woodruff added to Cleghorn’s comments on the Blue Angels, explaining that the Vidalia Blue Angels Air Show site is one of the group’s favorite locations. “There are around 150-170 people on the Blue Angels team, and only 75-80 of them came come to our show or any show,” he explained. “They fight over coming to Vidalia. They trade off weekends with each other, they trade off jewelry — whatever they can trade off, they do to come here. They love it so much that’s what they do to get here, and they tell everyone in their group that they want to come here.”

He continued, “What contributes to that is our personality and all the things that we do for them when they get here, and the hospitality that we show them. We bend over backward for them, and the hospitality we give them goes above and beyond what they get elsewhere. When they go to another military base, they’re just another guy in the sky, nobody pays it any attention. They’re just another guy in the military. But when they come here, they feel special, and they really enjoy it.”

Woodruff shared stories of Vidalia citizens being generous and hospitable with the Blue Angels team, such as when they gave posters and other gifts now displayed in the team’s hangar at their headquarters in Florida.

“This is the seventh Blue Angels visit to the Vidalia Onion Festival, and we have won Show Site of the Year twice throughout the years while being the smallest location they visit,” Cleghorn added. “They said this will be one of the highest attended events for family and friends of the Blue Angels. They get a certain number of passes each year to give out during the season, and many like to use them for here. It’s something special.”

He ensured that preparation has been underway to address parking issues, traffic, and other concerns for the Air Show and the festival as a whole; consultants are working hard to find the best way to bring attendees in and out of the airport, and to make sure that there are an adequate number of parking spaces in the downtown area for the concert.

To assist with preparations, Cleghorn said that tickets are currently on sale online on the festival website for premium parking and premium concert seating. There are 200 premium parking tickets available for each day of the air show, and 300 premium concert tickets, which put attendees near the front of the show, are also available. “Almost every ticket that we have sold has been for premium parking and concert seating,” he told the club members. “If you are planning on purchasing either type of ticket, I would do it soon.”

He said the festival expects well over a $1 million in local economic impact, as last time the Blue Angels were in town, there was almost a $2 million impact.

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