RICHLANDS, Va. — A summer tradition in Richlands came to an end this year, which left many residents looking for answers.
For 84 years, the James H. Drew Exposition made its way to town during the second week in June, followed by the Freedom Festival which, among other things, featured a fireworks show.
“I have had a lot of calls wanting to know why we didn’t have a carnival or fireworks this year,” Councilman Richard Brown said during the town’s June council meeting.
Town Manager Tim Taylor said the Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce always booked the carnival and it was not a town event.
Brown and Councilmember Mary Ann Strong said they had talked with Ginger Branton, who retired this year as chamber director, and learned Drew’s contract was up and the company chose not to renew it.
Brown said Drew listed several reasons why they chose not to come back, including shrinking revenue and two times when other carnivals set up in town despite an agreement that Drew was to be the exclusive show. He said the company also complained about town fees being excessive.
Taylor said the town did not charge the carnival anything to set up, but Drew gave a donation to cover water, sewer and electricity and paid the police department for security.
“It was my understanding [Drew] wanted the security,” Taylor said.
Branton, who negotiated the deals said the carnival and the chamber signed three year contracts and the last one was up when the 2018 carnival ended. She said the company gave several reasons for not renewing the agreement, but the bottom line was the event was not profitable.
She said Drew made the decision not to return to Richlands in June 2018, almost a year before three women, who had strong ties to the carnival, were murdered by James Michael Wright. Wright, a Mendota, Virginia, man who met the women while he was employed by a traveling pony show that worked alongside the carnival.
Branton said she was unaware of the charges against Wright.
She said nothing like that ever came up in the negotiations. Branton said Drew made three trips to the county each year for several years, setting up shop at the Mountain Festival in Bluefield, Richlands and the Tazewell County Fair.
The company ended their contract with the fair several years ago. Branton said the carnival will continue to come to Bluefield and that it will now be a two-week stop.
As for the fireworks, Taylor said the town didn’t have fireworks for many years because Jewell Ridge did and most people went there. Former Mayor Jan White and a group of citizens started the Freedom Festival several years ago and the event always concluded with a fireworks show.
Councilman Doug Ratliff said White and others solicited donations to pay for that show.
Brown and Strong asked Taylor to arrange a meeting with the director of the newly-formed Tazewell County Chamber of Commerce to discuss bringing Drew back or getting another carnival.
Council also asked Downtown Coordinator Connie Allen to see if a fireworks show could be incorporated into the Summerfest celebration next year.