The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Vision 2013

April 28, 2013

Cambria City Ethnic Festival continues to thrive

JOHNSTOWN — When organizers of Johnstown FolkFest decided to move their celebration from Cambria City to festival park and call it Flood City Music Fest, those left behind knew that ethnic heritage is a big part of Johnstown.

The Cambria City Ethnic Festival has continued without missing a beat, providing ethnic food, local bands and church tours.

That first fledgling year in 2004 was a success, dubbed one big block party – eight blocks long.

The first ethnic fest featured 40 different acts filling eight live entertainment venues and ethnic food from seven neighborhood churches and other venues.

While the first official Cambria City Ethnic Festival was held Labor Day weekend in 2004, the historic Johnstown neighborhood has been host to a festival of one kind or another since the National Folk Festival came to town in 1989 and Johnstown FolkFest took over four years later.

“We decided that the music festival has its place, and it was worth trying to keep going with the ethnic fest,” said Monsignor Raymond Balta, pastor of St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church and an ethnic fest organizer. “We turned it into an event, a reunion on Labor Day weekend. People can see old friends and make new ones. It’s a celebration of Johnstown itself.”

Balta added that the ethnic fest is not a destination like Thunder in the Valley, whose mission is to bring in tourists, but a homecoming.

“They come home from Virginia and Ohio to visit,” he said. “They reminisce and take a sentimental journey, walking the Cambria City streets to see where their family lived.”

Even though some of the Cambria City churches have been closed since that first year, there are still Irish, German and Slovak ethnic foods available.

“They’re all a part of the history of Johnstown, and we wanted to keep them,” Balta said. “The festival has grown from year to year. I think we’ve had around 20,000 attending.”

Most of the groups that perform for ethnic fest are local.

“That’s part of the celebration,” Balta said. “We have a lot of talent here. You don’t have to get groups from out of town. We have Jerry Intihar for polka, which is in the history of Johnstown, and we have Irish bands and the Rhinelanders for German music.”

Balta does bring in the Junior Tamburitzans from Pittsburgh to add to the festivities.

From FolkFest to ethnic fest, Rosemary Pawlowski, executive director of Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Cambria City, knew it wasn’t rocket science to provide ethnic festivities for whatever festival was taking place because that is the center’s year-round mission.

“We provide good entertainment and are proud to provide exposure for many emerging artists,” Pawlowski said. “Since 1993, the center has offered children’s ethnic crafts and regional performing artists, plus an exhibit in the gallery and theater. We have found sponsors each year for the children’s activities and performing artists.”

Pawlowski knows that people come to Cambria City for good, ethnic food and believes they are never disappointed.

For a number Cambria City venues, the revenue generated by ethnic fest makes up a significant share of their income for the year.

Pawlowski said some churches were ready to go under, but because they got together some food for that weekend, they have been able to stay open.

“When JAHA decided to transition over the river, it was the result of much planning and research,” Pawlowski said. “Their mission was no longer to host folk and ethnic groups, but more musical artists of the contemporary genre.”   

“There were feelings of dismay in Cambria City, thinking the audience would not come anymore, but the decision was made to continue on Labor Day weekend with what we call the ethnic fest.”

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