This fall, something will be different in the mountain town of Leavenworth, the Bavarian-styled hamlet two hours east of Seattle where even the fast food restaurants have gingerbread trim and painted shutters. Usually a giant Oktoberfest descends on downtown for three consecutive weekends, the oompah sounds of traditional polka music wafting over beer gardens set up outside the city's Festhalle civic center. But today, Projekt Bayern, the nonprofit that has overseen Leavenworth Oktoberfest since its conception, announced that for the second year in a row, the fest won't occur due to "lingering Covid-19 effects."
"We could get none of our German bands here," says Steve Lord, Oktoberfest Committee Chair for Projekt Bayern; same for the Canadian-based acts. What's more, performers were asking for nonrefundable advance payments, a risk when post-Covid reopening remains such a question mark. Lord also cites possible restrictions on dance floors that basically negated erecting one. "At this point, this is not going to be an authentic Oktoberfest at all," he says. "We have to make the call now," more than six months before the planned October 1 opening.
But that doesn't mean things will be back to lederhosen as normal when the pandemic is fully in Washington's rear view mirror. Lord says that Leavenworth Oktoberfest, which draws around 55,000 people annually according to the organization, may not continue in the German-ified town. He cites a recent city council meeting in which "we heard [the mayor and council] might not let us do it next year"—and says his committee is already considering other towns that could play host, like nearby Cashmere, Wenatchee, or Chelan.
The cancellation "was a surprise to us," says city mayor Carl Florea. The town's Oktoberfest was launched in 1998, more than 30 years after Leavenworth adopted a German theme in hopes of replacing a faltering timber industry with tourism. Recent conversations with Projekt Bayern, to Florea, suggested they'd put on a modified version of Oktoberfest this fall.
As for the future, the mayor notes that 2021 represents the final year of the city's second five-year agreement with the organization, and the city had alerted the group that they would be renegotiating the renewal. And while to outsiders the famed fall fest feels synonymous with Leavenworth's manufactured Bavaria, not everyone embraces it.
"It's not a real popular festival for locals," says Florea. "Something focused solely around drinking...what we saw was a lot of abuse of residents and their facilities and their lawns. It was just out of hand." Other quibbles: All the town's big parking lots are taken over by beer tents, the weekend-only scheduling crams too much visitation into those few days, and there's too little family friendly programming. Oh, and the beer is imported, not from Leavenworth's own craft brewers.
That, says Lord, is the point. "Our authenticity, from the beer to the food" is what ranks the Leavenworth version among top American Oktoberfests. The beer is brewed specially for the event in Germany, and the one year they defaulted to local ales, Lord says, "I had complaints from customers." Projekt Bayern has tried to address rising frat party vibes by adding more security, including metal detectors. To Lord, the real problem is the town's newest residents.
"They hate the traffic," says Lord. "They came as a visitor and fell in love with Leavenworth. Now they don't want any visitors to come after them." His own sons are sixth generation locals, he notes, while he casts naysayers as newcomers who want to undo Leavenworth's renown as a tourist destination. "But that's the only industry we have. It's beyond me," he says. Lord points to how Projekt Bayern has funded everything from new town murals (and a cuckoo clock) to almost two million dollars in wages to hourly Oktoberfest workers.
Mayor Florea is no johnny-come-lately; he served on the Leavenworth City Council back in 1998, the year the first Oktoberfest drew only 400 people. "In terms of what it brings into the city it's not a big deal," he says; festival comers don't shop in local stores much, he claims, and says the town's reputation "wasn't helped" by the party atmosphere. "I would hope and wish that Projekt Bayern...would still do something this year. It might not be as big." He envisions an event more spread out, both geographically and through weekdays, a kind of "harvest festival." Lord says Projekt Bayern owns both the Leavenworth Oktoberfest and Harvest Fest names.
Martin Szuster co-owns Pension Anna, a 16-room hotel mere feet from the Oktoberfest site, and he's optimistic the event will continue, perhaps reimagined. For his part, he's seen Projekt Bayern continually improve alcohol enforcement from year to year. He has attended the original Munich Oktoberfest, where "people are dancing on the tables and if they are drunk they go sleep on the grass"—behaviors that would never fly in Leavenworth.
Across town, owner Daniel Carr of Visconti's (an Italian restaurant) and Sausage Garten (just guess) calls cancellation a wise decision given pandemic unreliability, and notes that the business it brings is a healthy amount but not quite up to the Christmas lights season. "If we can't do it completely correctly, why do it?" he asks.
Leavenworth will always have some form of DIY Oktoberfest option, given the number of year-round beer halls and bratwurst eateries. The future of the actual festival will likely remain in the air until Projekt Bayern and the city renegotiate. Lord says he's curious to hear if nearby towns have interest, even though they lack the baked-in Bavarian infrastructure. "If the community doesn't want it anymore, we'll go to another community that wants help," he says.