Every year in early November, Urbanna, Va., hosts a weekend oyster festival, which yields state — and oft en national — shucking champions, draws beauty queens and their courts from all over Virginia and attracts 50,000 to 75,000 visitors from several surrounding states.
Not bad for a town of 471 people.
The two-day celebration, now in its 58th year, will take place Nov. 6–7. Included in the festivities are two parades, more than 50 food vendors, an oyster shucking contest, model boat building and sailing for children, wine and beer tents, a festival village and community row with a variety of arts and crafts. Naturally, there are also oysters available in every conceivable edible form: raw, roasted, fried, smoked, steamed, in fritters or in a stew.
Holly Gailey has served as Urbanna’s town administrator for two years. Before that she spent one year as director of parks and recreation. She said the event is organized by the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization.
The foundation prepares and submits a master plan to the town. All requests for trash service, police participation and road closures come through Gailey’s office.
“We involve the state and local police and the Virginia Department of Transportation,” she said. “The town budgets a certain amount for police services, but we make revenue from a meals tax on the vendors.” The town also owns and operates a 37-slip marina that fills up with rentals as soon as the openings are announced.
“It’s supposed to be a wash” for the town’s coffers, said Gailey.
Urbanna’s town council sets consideration of the master plan for a public hearing, mostly as a formality. “The plan usually passes without any problems,” said Pam Simon, the foundation’s event coordinator for the past 15 years.
The festival is centered downtown, and essentially all city streets are blocked off for the weekend. Visitors can park on the outskirts of town and walk or be shuttled in for the festivities.
The biggest beneficiaries of the festival are Urbanna’s businesses.
“We are a town of mom-and-pop restaurants and independently owned businesses,” said Gailey, many of which take in 50 percent or more of their annual income in the festival’s two days. “It keeps a lot of businesses alive after the summer crowds go away and the boats are put in storage.”