People fish from docks Thursday in Gardiner’s Waterfront Park. Normally the park would have been full this past weekend for the Greater Gardiner River Festival. But the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The streets of downtown Gardiner were quieter than planned this past weekend, with no games, music, or fireworks lighting up the night sky over the Kennebec River.

The Greater Gardiner River Festival, originally scheduled for June 20, was canceled this year over public health concerns because of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.

The annual community event is not the only casualty of the global coronavirus pandemic that has closed schools, businesses and government offices in Maine, driving up unemployment rates and showing how many people in the state are struggling even in what had been a fairly good state economy.

A number of for-profit businesses have scaled back operations or closed entirely, and the nonprofit sector is also evaluating how to move ahead in uncertain times.

“Organizations are grappling with what makes the most sense for us right now in this challenging time, that continues to meet our mission and that isn’t making us stray far from what we have set out to do in our communities,” said Kelly McCormack, development and marketing manager for the Maine Association of Nonprofits.

Across Maine, one-in-six employees works for a nonprofit organization.


“That’s approximately 18% of our workforce,” McCormack said. “Nonprofits range from those little guys that are your PTAs and Little League referees and clubs up to the big hospitals and colleges.”

The work done by nonprofits generally fill the gaps that governments or businesses can’t or don’t serve. And rather than earning revenue from sales of products or services, nonprofits rely on fundraising and grants to pay their expenses.

The conversations aren’t just taking place among administrators and their boards. On Friday, the state Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations heard testimony from a range of nonprofit representatives in health care and social services talk about the challenges they’re facing and how state government can help them.

People check out crafts and food vendor booths as they walk along a closed Water Street on June 20, 2009, during the Greater Gardiner River Festival. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Like other Main Street organizations, Gardiner Main Street’s focus is building a vibrant downtown neighborhood through community and economic development.

Part of its strategy is putting on community events.

For years, the river festival was the kickoff for the now-defunct Whatever Family Festival, a series of events in southern Kennebec County to celebrate the start of summer. It also highlighted the weekly Thursday night Cruise-In of classic cars to Waterfront Park, and Johnson Hall’s Friday night free summer concert series, also in Waterfront Park.


It’s clear that with public gatherings currently limited to 50 due to the highly contagious virus that has the potential to make some people seriously ill, no festival can be held this weekend.

“We’re putting out a save-the-date note for next year,” Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Melissa Lindley said.

In the meantime, Lindley and her board are still mulling the fate of Swine & Stein, its annual Oktoberfest celebration.

“It would not be anything like last year, with a packed street and glasses handed around, so we’re open to pursuing some options,” she said.

Just 10 miles away in Augusta, Charles Heurth has different problem. The director of Boys & Girls Club of Augusta has been trying to find ways not to turn people away. In mid-March, when schools, businesses and government offices were shutting down, Heurth and the club were figuring out how to stay in touch with the area teens the clubs serve without having them come to the club at the Buker Center.

“That’s when we decided we were going to really focus on the food part of things,” Heurth said. “On that first day, I was expecting to maybe cook 30, 40 extra meals, and we ended up doing 80 that day.”


By the third day, the club was feeding 200 kids a day in and around Augusta. At the the club’s high point, it was serving two meals a day — one of them hot — to 250 kids. Through last week, the club has served more than 27,000 meals.

“That was a huge change for us,” he said.

Now that summer has arrived, the club is still providing meals for about 120 kids, and working to continue to offer programs to a population for whom there is often not many productive things to do.

“There’s a lot for younger kids but once they get to be 13, 14 years old, kids end up looking for things to be doing,” Heurth said. “We really focus on trying to develop the character of our teens and helping them to become better than they were yesterday.”

The club is just about done working through its biggest stumbling block in providing meals — redesigning its kitchen with commercial-grade appliances because they went through two residential stoves in the last three months.

And it’s on to the next: providing transportation to teens to get to summer programs. Public health limits mean that vans and buses can only carry a fraction of the passengers they ordinarily can.


“We’re trying to go to remote locations,” Heurth said. “We’ll go to neighborhood parks and meet up with kids. We’re trying to vary that so we can give kids different opportunities to interact.”

With a donation of ice cream on from the Augusta Food Bank on Friday, Heurth said the club’s van was headed out to different neighborhoods to keep kids cool on a hot day.

The revenue picture for nonprofits is more uncertain this year than most because of the blow COVID-19 has dealt to the state’s economy.

For the Boys & Girls Club of Augusta, the last three months have been expensive.

The organization receives funding from the United Way of Kennebec County, which specifically supports programs like the Alternative to Suspension program for teens.

Food has been donated by the Augusta and the Good Shepherd food banks, and the club receives private donations. To supplement that, Heurth said he’s been writing grant applications and the club has an annual fundraiser.


As it happens, this year it was scheduled for mid-March, right before shutdowns started across Maine.

“We were debating what we would do,” Heurth said. “It turned out all right, but we didn’t make as much as we had hoped. But people did show up and were supportive of us. So that was good.”

At Gardiner Main Street, the overhead is fairly low. The organization is using space in the Gardiner Public Library for now, and Lindley is the sole employee.

“I was actually just about to interview for a part-time position when all this started, and we nixed that because that person would have been (for) events and volunteers,” she said. “A lot of our work is person-to-person.”

McCormack, at the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said revenue options are drying up because of canceled events and programs. Most nonprofits are operating on lean budgets and don’t have the reserves to fall back on for more than a few weeks.

“For many nonprofits, it’s like taking a sip out of a fire hose and trying to take in the information of what they can and can’t do based on the guidelines from the state,” McCormack said, “but trying to deliver the services the ways they know how and learning new methods like Zoom and creating virtual events.”

For Lindley, she’s looking ahead to next year, when the Greater Gardiner River Festival will be held in conjunction with Gardiner’s celebration of Maine’s bicentennial, which has also been canceled this year.

Tracey Desjardins, economic development director for the city of Gardiner, has secured a $10,000 bicentennial grant to put together a slate of events including historic walking tours, and other activities in conjunction with Gardiner civic groups like an auction, a pancake breakfast and a 5K race and a sock hop at the Waterfront in conjunction with the Cruise-In.

“It’s going to be bigger and better than ever,” Lindley said.

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