On Thursday morning, Don Kurre began making phone calls to let people know that Rail Fest 2016 has been canceled.
Next year’s celebration was expected to be larger than ever, because of it being Rail Fest’s 10th anniversary. Organizers hoped to pull in North Platte and Lincoln County’s history as well — the original plat in North Platte was established by the railroad in 1866 and Lincoln County was established the same year.
“We had hoped things would come together to make it really big,” said Kurre, the chairman of the event.
Kurre and the board members — all volunteers — began reviewing their staffing and resources, and realized they simply didn’t have enough to make the event happen.
“My sense is that the support is dwindling within the community,” Kurre said. “We just couldn’t do it anymore — I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
The initial plans for the 2016 celebration were sent out recently, showing that the festival is a constant part of the organizers’ lives. Logistics coordinator Dave Harrold pointed out that volunteers get worn out and caught up in life outside of Rail Fest, and the event’s organizers are no different.
“Don, as a human, can only do so much,” Harrold said.
Kurre said he has mixed feelings about the celebration coming to an end. Kurre said the ending means he’ll have the opportunity to live his life without having Rail Fest in the back of his mind. At the same time, when something becomes such a large part of a person’s life, it can be tough to let go.
“Rail Fest has been a real personal commitment of mine,” Kurre said. “I’m going to grieve. I think it’s really good for the community, but it’s also a relief.”
The impact of the decision to cancel Rail Fest spreads beyond those close to organizing and operating the event. It consistently draws national and international visitors, many who return every year.
“At least 10,000 participated in the event,” said Lisa Burke, executive director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau.
Last September, Harrold stated there had been visitors from 10 different countries and many states at the 2015 celebration.
“We had a good year in 2015,” Kurre noted.
Burke estimated the impact to the local economy could be roughly a half-million dollars. Burke said the event is great because of its theme, but also because it takes place during what is called a shoulder season that generally occurs from September through May.
“It also plants a seed for our community,” Burke said. “They may come just for Rail Fest, but they see everything else we’ll have to offer and they return.”
Burke said that the Visitors Bureau has given Rail Fest $15,000 a year in grants to market the event, adding that “we’ve fully supported it and hate to see it go.”
Harrold said the funds from the Visitors Bureau do help with promotion, but it’s just not enough. He noted that many tourists get their information from social media.
“They make their decisions based on comments provided on social media by people they’ve never met,” Harrold said. “They don’t rely on brochures or train publications. We’ve gotten grants, and we’re grateful but that [type of promotion] is old-school.”
Harrold said that having someone work solely on social media promotion would have a positive impact on interest in the event, but it’s just not a workable solution. Everyone who is a part of the Rail Fest team is a volunteer, many of them unfamiliar with how social media works — or at least not familiar enough to be good at using it to promote the event.
Rail Fest organizers could hire someone to promote the event, but the costs aren’t in the organization’s budget. The grant funds can be used to purchase advertising on social media websites including Facebook, Burke said, but they cannot be used to pay someone a salary.
Harrold feels that in general, Nebraska tourism lacks a social media presence, and doesn’t offer enough support to tourism attractions who want to use social media to grow. Burke agreed that in general, state tourism on social media isn’t up to par but said that the local visitors bureau has one of the strongest social media programs in the state, and they try to promote Rail Fest and other tourist attractions as much as possible.
“I am extremely grateful for the support and help we’ve gotten,” Kurre said. “I’ve met a lot of people and formed a lot of relationships and I appreciate them — especially [Union Pacific Railroad].”
Harrold said he doesn’t know if this is a true end for Rail Fest, stating he’d like to believe someone else will take it over. As for the current crew, “eventually you have to surrender.”