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Gilroy Garlic Festival volunteers worked at the assembly line in one of the food tents during the drive-thru Gourmet Alley experience at Gilroy Presbyterian Church on July 24, 2021. Photo: Juan Reyes
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The rising costs of hosting a massive event have forced Gilroy Garlic Festival organizers to rethink the city’s signature event in a way that substantially supports local nonprofits without breaking the bank.

A difficult two years, with the shooting in 2019 and a pandemic-related cancellation in 2020, have made the festival’s volunteer crew head back to the drawing board to find a way to get the event back to its roots.

Jeff Speno, the 2022 president of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, said organizers are looking to expand last year’s series of events. In the works now are two farm-to-table dinner events, a golf tournament and an in-person weekend event.

But more hurdles need to be overcome before the oil hits the frying pans.

In 2019, the last time the festival was held in its traditional format, attendance was nearly 85,000 over three days. According to financials released by the festival in late 2019, the association donated $250,000 to 155 local charities and nonprofit organizations that year.

However, while gross income increased slightly to $3.08 million, the festival lost about $100,000, in addition to $400,000 in 2018.

“The event as we know it is no longer financially viable due to escalating costs,” Speno said. “For several years prior to 2019, the festival association had to reach into its reserves to cover its costs and the donations to the nonprofits that worked so hard.”

The Glen Loma Ranch development adjacent to the festival’s home at Christmas Hill Park is one such factor that has impacted the association’s finances negatively, according to Speno. 

For many years, the festival was able to use the then-vacant land near the park for guest parking. But as construction began, guests had to park farther away, forcing the association to hire buses to transport guests to and from Christmas Hill Park, Speno said. Traffic control and field preparation also added to the expenses.

“All of this resulted in expenses that were unrecoverable even with revenue generated by charging guests a parking fee,” he said. 

As such, the association’s board of directors has had to take a “hard look” at the future of the festival, Speno told the Gilroy City Council during a presentation on Feb. 28.

It concluded that a smaller venue with built-in infrastructure would be ideal.

Organizers are now eyeing the picnic area at Gilroy Gardens to host a smaller weekend event in the summer that would have an attendance of 2,500. An analysis of the location in late 2020 showed that such an event could be feasible, according to Speno.

“We are certain we can transform this area into a great Garlic Festival experience,” he said.

But with summer rapidly approaching, time is becoming an issue to host an event this year. Speno said the association will soon reach out to the Gilroy Gardens board of directors with its proposal, and is currently negotiating on its liability insurance.

“The Gilroy Garlic Festival has impacted Gilroy and the surrounding communities for generations,” Speno said. “Given the ability to continue this in a smaller, more intimate venue will ensure that it will endure for future generations.”

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.


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