New direction: Visitors Center to coordinate Ethnic Expo and other events

Columbus has agreed to a one-year pilot program with the Columbus Area Visitors Center for event promotion, and specifically to handle next year’s Ethnic Expo in whatever form it emerges after the pandemic.

“While we don’t want to lose Ethnic Expo, we are really unsure about what next year will look like, and whether we can cram 20,000 to 30,000 people into one space over a weekend any time in the near future,” said Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development.

The city announced in May that the 2020 Ethnic Expo, normally held in the fall, was canceled. Expo, launched in 1984 by late first lady Barbara Stewart, aims to allow the city’s international residents, often brought here for work with corporations such as Cummins Inc., to share their culture with others. Plus, Stewart wanted to help those residents feel more comfortable in south central Indiana, especially when they were missing their homeland.

Organizers with the city of Columbus estimate that 25,000 people yearly attended the two-day festival highlighting food, music and an international bazaar. The expo normally includes more than 30 food booths from area organizations raising money and also local restaurants, plus music ranging from ensembles such as Asian drum groups, Mexican dance ensembles and the Cummins Diversity Choir.

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Ethnic Expo has been made possible by donations from the presenting sponsor, First Financial Bank, for the last 10 years, and other sponsors including Coca-Cola, ERMCO Electric, and Milestone. It is also made possible, in part, with support from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Columbus Area Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, as well as the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

This year, Columbus Board of Works and Public Safety has unanimously agreed to a one-year pilot program that will draw on the expertise of the Columbus Area Visitors Center for event promotion, Ferdon said.

In recent years, the city has hired a 20-hour-per-week coordinator to oversee the Expo, which is held every October. But beginning in 2021, the city will pay up to $18,000 to the Visitors Center to help pay an existing employee in their organization to market Ethnic Expo-related events, as well as other downtown activities, Ferdon said.

That person will be sales event coordinator Haley Anderson, who will take on the new title of downtown coordinator at the Visitors Center, executive director Karen Niverson said. Anderson will have some overlapping of her current and future responsibilities next year, Niverson said.

Meanwhile, other staff members at the center will be focusing on what Niverson calls “creative placemaking” — a term referring to a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.

“(Ethnic Expo) probably will not look like it has in the past, but we do want to continue with the spirit of Ethnic Expo in some fashion, and hold some types of events in 2021,” Ferdon said.

Even if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available by next summer, it doesn’t make sense to bring a person on board when nobody is certain how comfortable people will feel getting together in large crowds, said Robin Hilber, assistant director for community development.

One concept being considered for next year is a number of activities celebrating the community’s diversity over several weekends, which Hilber describes as “Ethic Expo Lite.” By having more activities, it is hoped that large crowds capable of spreading the virus can be avoided.

It’s also likely Anderson and the Visitors Center will include commemorations of the bicentennial of both Columbus and Bartholomew County into next year’s series of events, Ferdon said. Originally known as Tiptonia, the name of the county seat was changed to Columbus on March 20, 1821. In that same year, the county was named in honor of General Joseph Bartholomew, who fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Instead of staging separate events for both the Expo and Bicentennial, Hilber said community members may find that the smaller celebrations will mix multiple purposes. In addition, a number of high school reunions — including those canceled this year — may be incorporated into these multiple celebrations, she said.

“We know the Visitor’s Center is extremely good at organizing events,” Hilber said. “It’s their forte.”

Another major area of concern have been several downtown merchants and services who, in regard to finances, have found themselves among some of the hardest-hit local victims of the pandemic, Ferdon said. The city intends to work in partnership with these businesses for next year’s events, including asking Anderson to listen and respond to their concerns, Hilber said.

It has already been announced that First Financial Bank will be an significant event sponsor in 2021, Ferdon said.

Board of Works member Brenda Sullivan described the proposal as a great idea, especially when the Visitor’s Center has found itself financially struggling with this year’s significant drop in tourism.

“I just think it’s really important right now that we leverage our resources and align our efforts to make sure that we make the biggest impact,” Niverson said.

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Ethnic Expo in Columbus attracts around 25,000 people for a two-day festival highlighting food, music and an international bazaar. The expo normally includes more than 30 food booths from area organizations raising money and also local restaurants, plus music ranging from ensembles such as Asian drum groups, Mexican dance ensembles and the Cummins Diversity Choir.

Ethnic Expo has been made possible by donations from the presenting sponsor, First Financial Bank, for the last 10 years, and other sponsors including Coca-Cola, ERMCO Electric, and Milestone. It is also made possible, in part, with support from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Columbus Area Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, as well as the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

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