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Could climate change threaten spring festival season? Some Baltimore County organizers are concerned.

Visitors walks among the vendors on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Towsontown Spring Festival last year.
Visitors walks among the vendors on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Towsontown Spring Festival last year. (BSMG File)

Towson Chamber of Commerce director Nancy Hafford started planning this year’s annual Towsontown Spring Festival two weeks after last year’s ended.

The chamber’s biggest event of the year, the Towsontown Festival costs as much as $200,000 to operate. Hundreds of volunteer hours and dozens of sleepless nights go into making it happen.

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But when opening day approaches, Hafford said, “There’s one thing I care about and one thing only: weather.”

If the weather is good, people come out in droves, she said. But if it rains, they don’t show. And if it rains a lot, some of the event could be canceled. “That’s the risk of doing business,” Hafford said.

The annual festival takes place this weekend on May 4 and 5 in central Towson.

That risk, Hafford and others in the festival business said, appears to be rising. Last year, a year of record-breaking rainfall, Maryland business owners and festival organizers said they saw more rainouts than any other in recent memory.

Climate scientists say all that rain is part of a trend: On average, as the global climate warms, Maryland is likely to get hotter and wetter than ever before. That could make Baltimore County’s vibrant outdoor festival season more risky and more expensive.

In Towson, the chamber’s weekly Feet on the Street series had double the number of cancellations due to rain than it did in previous years — more than a third of scheduled performances. For every rainout, Hafford said, the chamber loses money.

“If that happened this year, I don’t know if we could continue,” she said.

'It ruins stuff, man’

In early April, The Baltimore Sun reported the predictions of a study by scientist Matt Fitzpatrick. In 60 years, he said, Maryland’s climate will look a lot like Mississipi’s: hotter, more humid and much rainier.

Fitzpatrick, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said in a more recent interview that Maryland’s heat index — a measure of both heat and humidity — will be higher on average in summers of the future. The state will also see more precipitation in the average year, likely in the form of heavier rain events.

Maryland just won’t be the same in 60 years, and a new study predicts its climate will come to resemble someplace nearly 1,000 miles away, somewhere hotter and wetter and thick with mosquitoes. Welcome to Mississippi, sugah.

Maryland is already seeing the effects of climate change. According to the University of Maryland Extension, the warming climate is contributing to more severe weather events, like the heavy rains that caused flash flooding in Catonsville and Ellicott City last May. Last year was Maryland’s wettest on record.

Those climate changes, Fitzpatrick said, are set to be drastic enough to change human behavior, not only when it rains, but also when the heat index rises. “People go to Florida in the winter but not the summer for a reason,” he said.

Michael Scarinzi, owner of event company AAPS Productions, handles sound, lights and other event necessities for the Towson chamber’s events as well as others, like the Maryland State Fair. He said since getting his start in the industry in 1998, rainouts have grown more frequent, and his business has taken a hit.

“It was rare to get rained out,” Scarinzi said. “Summer was almost like a drought. Now it’s just like; I don’t know what the hell it’s like, it rains constantly.”

Multiple festivals around the region were affected by rain last year, including the Maryland State Fair and the Preakness in Baltimore, which was so muddy from a week of rain that people started impromptu mud wrestling matches. And last September, the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival was canceled during a state emergency sparked by Hurricane Florence. Also, two years ago, attendance at Flowermart in Baltimore plummeted due to the wet weather.

Kendrick Tilghman, chairman of the board that runs the African American festival, said the festival funds the organization’s scholarships and work preserving the county’s African-American history. Canceling the festival “did impact [that mission] a little bit,” he said, but by holding a subsequent event he said the group was able to continue its efforts.

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Hafford said she is not an expert on the science behind what is causing the weather changes she sees, “but something’s different.”

“I personally think, I’m not sure what’s going on, but something’s definitely going on,” she said.

With light, intermittent rain, Scarinzi said he can sometimes make it work, throwing tarps over sound equipment that costs thousands of dollars to protect it from water damage until the sky clears up. But if the rain is heavier, or if the wind blows through tents, the bands just can’t play.

Some festivals, like the state fair, still pay Scarinzi regardless of whether the weather shuts down the event. But with smaller festivals that don’t put down a deposit, a cancellation means hundreds of dollars he never sees.

“It ruins stuff, man,” Scarinzi said. “It’s things you plan all year. It’s not like something that just pops up.”

Hafford said not only rain has gotten more volatile. One year, she said chamber staff woke up on the Sunday morning of a festival weekend to find their huge, weighted tents blowing around Towson in heavy winds. Hafford said they lost about 20 tents that year.

Baltimore's record books are drenched as a historically wet year continues to wreak havoc. After downpours Dec. 15, the total for 2018 reached 68.82 inches. More rain is forecast later in the week of Dec. 17.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said climate change is already affecting the county, from festival cancellations to flooding events like last year’s in Catonsville. He pointed to his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, which includes funding for a new “chief sustainability officer,” who would work on both prevention and resilience.

“We have to focus on what we’re doing to prevent our contribution toward climate change, but also actions to be more resilient and prepare communities for the impact of climate change,” Olszewksi said.

The sustainability officer would work with various county departments, like tourism and transportation and public works, to achieve their goals, Olszewksi said.

Hafford said that, so far, she has not heard from the county on the problem of rising rain cancellations, but that it is something to which they should pay more attention. She said the Towsontown Spring Festival and other chamber events support nearly 200 jobs and millions in wages annually.

‘We can’t ignore it’

Of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses for the Towsontown Spring Festival, most of it is paid upfront and cannot be returned, Hafford said. Bands and festival staff still need to be paid, tent rental contracts still need to be filled. That means the fees vendors pay to set up at the festival cannot be reimbursed, she said. If it rains, businesses large and small that pay for a spot at the festival have to eat the cost.

Jonathan Davenport, owner of Laughing Crab Catering, a Havre de Grace company that works outdoor events around the country, said out of 192 events scheduled last year, about 25 were canceled due to weather — more than 10 percent.

“Generally, once the fees are paid there is no refund, so if we get bad weather we lose it,” said Davenport, who has owned Laughing Crab for 10 years. “Last year was probably the worst year that we’ve had, and it was bad for everyone. All the vendors had bad years.”

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That was what happened in Catonsville last year when the annual Arts and Crafts Festival, run by the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, was rained out, leaving craft vendors — some from out of town — paying the fees without any opportunity to sell.

The following timeline of the flooding shows just how quickly the rain morphed Old Ellicott City into a deadly flood zone.

Teal Cary, executive director of the Catonsville chamber, said the festival last September would have marked the 45th annual event. It was the first rain cancellation in its history, she said.

“We had stood out there in the rain in the past, but [last] year we had to cancel it, the rain was just so heavy, and the wind,” Cary said. “It was just horrible.”

That rainstorm prompted the Catonsville chamber to make a controversial decision to move the festival from downtown Catonsville south to the Community College of Baltimore County’s Catonsville campus. Because Frederick Road is a state road, Cary said, the festival could not schedule a rain date.

“In 2017, we had a bunch of rain, and we thought that’ll never happen again,” Cary said. “Then 2018 was even worse. You can’t just say, ‘Well that’ll never happen again.’ Because look at Ellicott City.”

Cary said in her opinion the weather patterns that threaten the festival, as well as weekly outdoor Frederick Road Fridays, are undergoing a shift.

“We can’t ignore it,” Cary said. “It wouldn’t be fair to the crafters and artists that plan to be with us to just ignore the fact that it’s changing.”

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