Iola Car Show still a go; Organizers face decision
By Greg Seubert
MMC Staff Writer
IOLA – In a perfect world, thousands of car enthusiasts would flock to Waupaca County in July for the 48th annual Iola Car Show and Swap Meet.
In a COVID-19 world, however, those plans could change.
Iola is scheduled to host the event – which in the past has included more than 2,200 show cars, 4,000 swap meet spaces, 1,000 car corral spaces, 1,600 camping spaces and more than 100,000 visitors –July 9- 11.
While other annual events such as Milwaukee’s Summerfest and the Boston Marathon have been rescheduled or called off because of COVID-19, Iola Car Show organizers are holding out hope that July will work.
“We’re still working toward the as-planned show,” executive director Joe Opperman said. “We don’t really need to pull off of that track until probably late May or early June. We would have to make a decision by early June and we’d hope to make it a lot earlier than that. It’s just impossible to say right now.
“Every day, more information and better information is available,” he said. “To stop planning is to effectively cancel and we’re just can’t do that yet. We don’t have enough information to be sure about that.”
“In talking to Joe last week, the big issue is ordering food,” said Greg Loescher, president of the Iola-Scandinavia Chamber of Commerce. “You have a date where you make the decision to order food, but how much do you order if it’s a go? If they don’t order food by a certain date, they stop. People are coming from not just Wisconsin, but from other states, and what are their situations at the time of the show?
“Plus, we have the volunteers,” he added. “A lot of our volunteers are retirees, so they may decide they don’t want to be in a hectic situation working at a food stand. Everyone has to live with these situations. It’s not just the car show, it’s everyone. That’s an issue and it’s an issue for every big event.”
Picking another date is not a possibility, according to Opperman.
“Rescheduling is really is not an option for us,” he said. “There are way too many moving parts with all of the volunteers and people affected. We’re working on a variety of alternative plans if need be.”
“A few have scheduled for the fall, but personally, I don’t feel that’s a good idea,” Loescher said. “Fall is already jammed with stuff, it’s a short window and you’re not going to get the same numbers anyway. It’s very difficult to reschedule a huge event. It’s a tough call.”
Jefferson, a city between Milwaukee and Madison, recently cancelled its swap meet and car show, which had been scheduled for April 24-26.
“They didn’t have any choice at all,” Opperman said. “We just don’t know where we stand yet. We’re optimistic that we’ll have a much better understanding of this by the time we really need to make a decision. If our show was in late May, it’d be cancelled.”
This year’s show will have a 1970s theme and guests already signed on include Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch;” and legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who also attended the show in 2015 and 2017.
“The celebrities that they bring in, are they going to be able to travel or want to travel?” Loescher said. “Hopefully, it’s clear where they are and they’ll want to travel. It’s a tough call. I feel for Joe and his staff and anybody that’s involved in a major event or a smaller event.”
Besides giving visitors a chance to get up close and personal with celebrities, several local organizations rely on the show for funding.
“To not have our show would be devastating to a lot of our organizations,” Opperman said. “We have 130 groups that receive funding as a result of our show and that doesn’t even touch on the commerce that takes place in central Wisconsin. It’s hard to say how far-reaching that is, but it’s not an understatement to say that it would be devastating to dozens and dozens or organizations.”
“It would be very difficult, especially for the volunteer groups that work at the show,” Loescher said. “They use that money throughout the year. The local businesses would be hurt. For some of them, it’s the biggest week of the year. Even beyond Iola and Scandinavia, it impacts Waupaca, Stevens Point. It would be a major hit, but we have some major ideas that we have that could maybe bring people back at different times of the year, but we really haven’t explored them that much. This would precipitate a need to maybe do something beyond just the car show as far as car people are concerned.”
If the plug does get pulled on this year’s show, Loescher believes car enthusiasts will be back in 2021.
“Hopefully, by that time we’ll have a vaccine and before then even more testing. I know people, myself included, that have been going for decades and I think those are the people that will definitely come back because it is kind of a community,” he said. “I don’t think that would hurt the hard-core car show person. They’re going to come back. Whether we get the casual people that go, ‘Oh, it’s Saturday, let’s go check out the cars,’ that’s hard to say, but if we’re out of the woods with this, I don’t see it hurting too much for next year.”