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Fate unsettled for 2009 Pioneer Day

Pauline Schottmuller's still got a basement full of Pioneer Day paraphernalia -- it's taking up some space in her family's garage, too.

For the past decade the Newport City Council member has helped lead the planning effort for the city's annual Pioneer Day festival. Now Schottmuller, and three others who have helped with the bulk of preparations, have said they're stepping away from leadership positions on the planning committee -- or, in Schottmuller's case, stepping away completely.

But no new volunteers have stepped up, leaving Newport in jeopardy of losing the festival that has brought summer fun to the city annually for more than 35 years.

"I don't know if it's going to happen," Schottmuller said. "There's a part of me that thinks no one is going to step into the void."

It was Schottmuller, former council members Emily White and Barb Wilczek, and Katy McElwee-Stevens who took control of the event in 1999 when it first looked in danger of disappearing. Until a decade ago, the city's business community had put on Pioneer Day, or previously Pioneer Days, for much of its existence, White said.

That changed before the '99 festival, when the looming highway and bridge construction left Newport businesses preoccupied with ensuring their survival. Had Pioneer Day disappeared with a long, difficult period of construction ahead, Schottmuller says, it would have struck a rough psychological blow to the city.

The four women took over Pioneer Day planning to help send a message that "we're not going to be defeated by this," Schottmuller said. "We're going to come out the other end a better, stronger community.

"When a community is under stress, and Newport certainly was with the highway construction, community-building activities are important."

But White said the four had talked, agreeing it was time to let others take charge of the annual Pioneer Park get-together.

Pioneer Day has been run on what Schottmuller called "a shoestring budget" of roughly $2,000, half of which has typically been budgeted by city officials.

Schottmuller and White both said last week they believe the city's business community can again take over the small-scale celebration.

"It now seems we have a reinvigorated business community," Schottmuller said. "I think this is the time for them to take back their event, and make it their own and use it as a marketing tool."

Someone needs to step up soon though, Schottmuller says. Vendors that have penciled in Pioneer Day each year will have to be alerted by late-February if it looks unlikely the event will go on. That means more volunteers would have to get to work, or at least have a committee in place to begin planning for the 2009 edition.

No matter what, it won't be Schottmuller, she said, citing the negativity of last fall's city council and mayoral campaigns and an increased workload in her full-time job as a nurse.

"You don't beat someone up and then say, 'Oh, but please continue doing what you're doing," she said. "I'm bloodied, I'm bruised, I'm tired."

White said she'll be disappointed if Pioneer Day doesn't go on, and also says she'd be willing to lend her assistance if the city can get others to take the lead.

But right now, she says, that looks easier said than done.

"Maybe there is somebody out there, but we had trouble getting people to take tickets" at last summer's Pioneer Day, White said. "We had to beg people to volunteer their time."