by Amanda Pitzer
A quarter century of Cheat Fests. Now that’s something. We’ve done something. What is that “something”? What has the Cheat River Festival’s impact been on Friends of the Cheat? The Cheat River? The community? Me?
Those are some big questions. Especially for someone like me who has been embedded in the weeds of the festival. I wasn’t there the first year. That must have been scary! My first Cheat Fest was 2006. I volunteered in years following, but missed 2009 – the elusive “Year it Didn’t Rain”. I’ve been Executive Director for 8 Cheat Fests – 2019 will be my ninth. I’ve pretty much seen it all: from dancing blisters to broken arms, from first-time volunteers to the volunteer who tells me the “way it’s always been”, from baby’s first Cheat Fest to introductions of future couples, from rainbows to microbursts and every kind of weather inbetween. I can bear witness to the impacts a little festival has had – those measureable and those immeasurable.
You might notice that my “been there, done that” list is pretty much all about people. That’s because Cheat Fest, despite being named after our beloved river with proceeds going to FOC’s mission to protect that river, is all about PEOPLE. Cheat Fest truly is a uniquely special confluence of communities. Cheat Fest brings people to a festival that might otherwise have never gone to a “festival”. For some, a “festival” is an ideal space in time where a group of people exist together in harmony, celebrating the same values. (Sounds awesome, right!?) Those values can be as simple as good music or as noble as cleaning up a river. For others, a “festival” can conjure up negative feelings about the counterculture, excess, and waste. Any good organizer considers these issues and potential hypocrisies. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of another festival, Woodstock. Woodstock was an event that changed a generation, and arguably the world: “Although the festival didn’t go exactly as planned, it was, as advertised, three days of peace and music. That made Woodstock an idyll, particularly in retrospect, even though it was declared a state disaster area at the time.” (Jon Pareles, NYT) Now, I’m not saying Cheat Fest has been as impactful as Woodstock but, a great festival has a reputation truly greater than itself, and I believe we have achieved that with Cheat Fest.
So, what else have we achieved? Well, we have raised a heck of a lot of money for FOC’s work to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed. From 2012 through today, Cheat Fest has a Net Profit of $202,100. These funds infuse FOC’s annual budget with what we non-profit nerds call Unrestricted Revenue. Unrestricted Revenue is the best kind of revenue because the organization can use it for our greatest need, which, year in and year out is funding for FOC staff salaries. In regular person speak – this money pays us to do stuff! FOC has become a great place to work, and Cheat Fest dollars support competitive salaries and benefits so we can attract and retain talented and committed staff members. FOC has been instrumental in the restoration of water quality to the Cheat River main stem, resulting in healthy fish populations from headwaters to Cheat Lake. Beyond the main stem, for the first time in 25 years, the pH of Muddy Creek is neutral. Downstream of Muddy Creek, the Cheat River Canyon is now public land and the Allegheny Trail has been re-opened. FOC negotiated the purchase of the future Cheat River Rail-Trail, and in December 2018 was awarded over $3 million dollars to build the trail and implement Trail Town initiatives across Preston County. We have stayed true to our whitewater roots, maintaining accesses and county roads, and expanded paddling opportunities for all through the Cheat River Water Trail. And, that’s just the short list!
The accomplishments listed above are tangible, but there is so much more that can’t be listed in a grant report. Cheat Fest has introduced people to a special place. Cheat Fest has created a space for memory-making. Cheat Fest has taught people about stewardship. Cheat Fest has inspired others to take on otherwise daunting tasks. The ripple effect of Cheat Fest goes on and on. As leader of the FOC team, Cheat Fest fills my cup with joy, inspiration, and hope. Cheat Fest is YOU, so what I’m really saying is YOU fill my cup.
I think I’m going to need a bigger cup for year 25. CHEERS!