Tourist-oriented La Conner copes with losing biggest festival of year
Businesses in the town of La Conner, nestled between the lush fields of Skagit Valley and the waters of the Puget Sound, rely almost exclusively on tourism. And the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, which runs through the month of April annually, is by far the biggest tourist season of the year.
But this year, even though rainbows of tulips are covering the Skagit fields like carpets, the Tulip Festival is canceled. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the festival to a halt before it began, and with it, the livelihoods of shop and restaurant owners.
“La Conner is a tourist-driven town, our main income source is tourism … and unlike other towns, where summer or fall is their peak season, this right now is our peak season,” said Heather Carter, director of the La Conner Chamber of Commerce. “So to have the Tulip Festival and the events that surround the Tulip Festival canceled, it really affects the heart of the season for our businesses.”
As luck would have it, Carter said, this came at an especially rough time because the businesses are coming out of a particularly slow winter. The first cases of coronavirus began hitting the area just as the daffodils came up — but the ruined Daffodil Festival was just a precursor to the loss of the Tulip Festival.
“Everyone was so looking forward to and excited about spring, a fresh kick-start to the year,” Carter said. “And then to have this effect, it is just devastating.”
In 2020, La Conner is a rarity — a town that includes not one chain store or chain restaurant, composed 100 percent of mom-and-pop stores.
“These are individually owned businesses; we really rely on that personal connection and that one-on-one,” Carter said.
She also worries about the months that will follow the lifting of the stay-at-home order. Even when businesses re-open and people are allowed to leave their homes for non-essential trips again, Carter sees it more as a trickle of people out the door than a rush, especially if a second wave of the virus appears likely.
“I think we all wish, once the day [the order lift] is announced, we can all have a party in the streets, but I don’t think that can happen,” Carter said. “We have to be responsible.”
Despite the hardships, the chamber is finding ways in the meantime to give back to the community and lift spirits. The chamber delivered tulips to every resident of the La Conner Retirement Inn, and is also working with La Conner High School seniors, who are now without a graduation ceremony, to make a public message of support.
“It’s about building community awareness, making sure our neighbors are OK — doing all we can to just be positive,” Carter said.
As soon as it became apparent that COVID-19 would greatly impact the Tulip Festival, the La Conner Chamber of Commerce created a resource to help businesses virtually — including not just chamber members, but all businesses in the town.
On the chamber’s website, you can find a detailed list of all the businesses offering online orders, gift cards, food delivery, and other services. If there’s a shop or restaurant you want to see open on your next trip to La Conner, see how you can lend a hand.
“Continue to support our businesses through e-commerce. Buy a gift card, write a great review, even just send a friendly message to a business owner,” Carter said.
And, perhaps most importantly, “Please return when all this is over, because small-town America really needs our help.”