Stockton Asparagus Festival calls it quits after 29 years

Area residents may have a hard time filling their deep-fried asparagus fix after the organizers of the longtime festival announced Tuesday they were ending nearly three decades of honoring the healthy green stalk.

The Stockton Asparagus Festival, which honored all forms of the popular Central Valley vegetable, ends a year shy of its 30th anniversary. Decreased attendance and increased costs crippled the event’s finances, officials said.

The event – which was held in late April at the city’s downtown waterfront – had been one of Northern California’s signature food festivals and the otherwise struggling city’s calling card.

“It’s been a great 29-year run. Sometimes good things come to an end,” said Doug Wilholt, one of the event’s founders and chief executive officer of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

The end comes after two sharply down years amid rising costs. Decreased revenue resulted in dramatically less money for the charities that made the event possible, Wilholt said. Volunteer organizations are paid proportionally from event profit. In 2012, attendance reached 104,000 visitors, generating $315,000 for the 129 nonprofit volunteer organizations. In 2013, attendance dropped to 75,000 visitors. The payout to participating charities plunged to $63,000, Wilholt said.

The event’s 2014 attendance – marred by a heavy spring storm – fell to 55,000 visitors.

Further complicating matters was a new agreement with the city phasing out city subsidy. Wilholt said the city’s financial position – it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 – reduced options.

“If you have two bad years and you can barely pay your bills, do you go deeper in debt?” Wilholt asked.

The 2014 payout to volunteers will be boosted by the liquidation of event assets, Wilholt said.

“We give every possible cent we can to the nonprofits,” he said.

Dan Scott, who grew up in Stockton and now runs Sacramento’s Beer Week, said the event lost its luster after it moved from a wooded park on the north end of town to the urban waterfront site. Wilholt said the event outgrew the park, and development of that area would have made keeping it there impossible.

“I’m not surprised” that the event ended, said Scott. “I haven’t been in a decade.”

Lauren Kimzey, a Stockton native who now calls Sacramento home, also said that the event suffered after it moved. The move came as the city poured millions into rebranding downtown Stockton.

The park, she said, was “just a lot nicer venue.”

Still, Kimzey said she is “just really disappointed and upset” that the event is ending.

Former San Joaquin Valley resident Roger Salazar, now of Elk Grove, said he remembers the times he and his family spent together at the annual festival.

Salazar was too young to appreciate asparagus at the time, but he does cherish the memories of “soaking in the good feelings of Stockton” while attending the festival, he said.

He said hometown has a lot to be proud of, aside from its previously celebrated asparagus, and that the spirit of Stockton can be showcased in other ways.

“On a plus side, you can look at this as a potential opportunity to create other events,” Salazar said. “But certainly, it’s disappointing to see a traditional type of event go away.”

Mike Testa of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau said the festival was an asset to the entire region, which is rebranding itself as the farm-to-fork capital of the country. The longstanding festival had been a feather in the region’s cap.

“It’s a loss from a community standpoint and a brand standpoint as well,” Testa said. He said the bureau learned recently of the festival’s demise, but there was already talk of trying to save elements of it, perhaps in the bureau-sponsored Farm-to-Fork Festival.

“If we can keep a piece of that alive, that is of value,” Testa said “I would hate to see it go away entirely.”

Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch. Bee staff writer Chris Macias contributed to this report