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Crowds and Community at Core of Apple Fest

The 40th Annual Ithaca Apple Harvest Festival reaches new crowd heights over apple-filled weekend event.

Attendees at Apple Fest enjoy walking around the closed-off streets of Downtown Ithaca and seeing the different craft and food vendors. (Photo by Jillian Bleier/Ithaca Week)

Family-owned Littletree Orchard has been at every Apple Fest since the first one in 1982. Amara Steinkraus has been managing her family orchard’s booth for about 13 years.

“It’s a great way to celebrate before the change of the seasons,” Steinkraus said. “We all kind of feel the crisp in the air, we know the winter is coming, so you know, kind of just to celebrate and have a nice time outside.”

Amara Steinkraus at her family orchard’s booth at Apple Fest. (Photo by Jillian Bleier/Ithaca Week)

Apple Harvest Festival, better known as Apple Fest, held Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, attracts thousands of visitors to Ithaca and strengthens the sense of community in the area.

Past to Present

The first Apple Fest focused on showcasing local farmers. What started as a one-day festival eventually extended to two days and now spans three days and five blocks downtown and on The Commons.

Apple Fest currently has approximately 200 total vendors, now including local craft and food vendors, as well as musical entertainment.

Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA), said that despite closing down in 2020 for the pandemic, the 2021 festival drew in the largest crowd yet at around 75,000 people.

Ferguson said the 2022 attendance is not finalized at this time, but numbers have already exceeded the 2021 attendance.

Crowds enjoying the beautiful weather and exploring the variety of food vendors at Apple Fest. (Photo by Jillian Bleier/Ithaca Week)

“Last year was actually the best year ever,” he said. “I think it was probably the first big event the community had coming out of the pandemic, so people were very excited about coming up.”

Scott Rougeau, special events director of the DIA, said one of the biggest challenges running an event of this scale is public safety.

Current safety measures include an ambulance and security/police staff on site.

“This event, as long as people keep showing up to it and we prove that we can do things safely and appropriately, you know I think the sky’s the limit,” Rougeau said.

Post-pandemic Tourism in Ithaca

Tourism, like many other industries, is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nick Helmholdt, principal planner and tourism program director of Tompkins County, said he thinks that tourism in Ithaca is strong right now despite the rough patches that the pandemic brought.

“[Festivals] are, I think, great ways to expose people to what we have to offer in our community, and give them a taste of what the different stores and businesses that operate here can share,” he said.

In a study conducted for Ithaca and Tompkins County, leisure was the number one reason for visits to the area with college being a close second. (Photo from Visitor Profile Report 2019 Ithaca and Tompkins County)

Rougeau said he thinks the traffic from this event benefits the DIA, the greater community and participating vendors.

“It’s a great avenue to highlight our region,” he said.

Community, Community, Community!

Michael Fambro, owner of Jazz House designs and first-time Apple Fest vendor, grew up in Ithaca. Her father inspired her two-year-old business selling clay earrings influenced by jazz music.

Fambro said she thinks Ithaca has a funky spirit and a different kind of people.

“Ithaca is untouched in terms of community, and I’ve lived in some places that have similar vibes … they like the diversity of humans and they celebrate that diversity, but Ithaca is untouched when it comes to just supporting the arts and loving individual creativity,” she said.

Michael Fambro poses at her booth at Apple Fest. Ithaca Festival, this past summer, was Fambro’s first time being a vendor. (Photo by Jillian Bleier/Ithaca Week)

Apple Fest continues to bring in people from outside Ithaca. Terri Buono, second-time visitor from Elmira Heights, NY, said she enjoys walking around the festival.

“It’s nice to see all the different nationalities of people here that Ithaca always draws in … Ithaca is just like a whole other world sometimes and I love that about it,” she said.

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