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Blueberry/Art’s continued success is Linda Fryer’s lasting legacy

It was earlier this month that leaders of the Ely Chamber of Commerce, mayor Heidi Omerza and others gathered to dedicate “Linda’s Garden,” a beautiful garden outside the Chamber’s east end headquarters completed in memory of Linda Fryer - the longtime Chamber director who passed away in 2022.

Many of those same people were on hand last year as a portion of Seventh Avenue East near Whiteside Park was renamed Linda Fryer Way.

Those were both outstanding and fitting tributes, given Linda’s decades of service to the Chamber and to the Ely community - and her pivotal role in promoting our area as a vacation destination.

To this day, many businesses in the Ely area are benefiting from Linda’s efforts.

But take a look around Ely this weekend, whether it’s the “no vacancy” signs at area lodging establishments, the bustling streets, shops and restaurants, and the masses of humanity gathered near Whiteside Park - and we think you’ll find Linda’s lasting legacy.

Of course it’s Blueberry/Art Festival weekend in Ely, and that means it’s time for our community’s signature event of the summer and the busiest weekend of the year.

Thousands will descend into Ely, shopping and browsing at Whiteside Park and spending dollars all around town.

That’s just to be expected now and it has been for at 30 years.

Vendors and visitors come from many states away, and from closer destinations, to take it all in.

Yet it’s easy to forget now, or perhaps it may be surprising to those who weren’t around then, that it wasn’t always that way in Ely on the last weekend of July.

The Blueberry/Art Festival had rather humble beginnings, and we can remember a time when the entire festival - and its vendors - were on a downtown avenue.  One could fit everything on First Avenue East as visitors explored the booths set up between Sheridan and Chapman streets.

We remember another year when the booths were located next to the Little League field by the school parking. While an attraction it was nothing like it is today.

Under Linda’s leadership as director of the Ely Chamber, the Blueberry/Art took off.

By the early-1990s it was common place to see the festival filled to capacity with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.

It was a telling and fun exercise to walk around the blocks near the park, looking at license plates and counting the number of different states represented. On a busy Blueberry Friday one could see vehicles with plates from all across the United States.

The Chamber had to develop a waiting list for booths, and smart Blueberry vendors and shoppers knew to reserve their lodging a year in advance, or else they’d be scrambling for rooms in Virginia or even further away.

Linda and the Chamber could recognize a good thing and they even created a spinoff event - the September Harvest Moon Festival - that now has a life of its own.

Linda had a knack to avoid getting caught up with the political controversies - both ongoing and those that pop up - in Ely.

She seemed to focus on staying above or away from the fray and instead devoted her energies to cultivating Ely’s festivals, and working on numerous fronts to promote Ely as a place to vacation.

That work was noticed, with Linda and the Chamber earning a slew of tourism awards and with Ely landing recognition from magazines, travel websites and others as a must-visit small town.

Both the garden and avenue are nice, but the success of the Bluberry/Art Festival are even more of a lasting legacy for Linda Fryer.

As the park fills this weekend, and the lines form at the food court and beer garden, we hope Linda is watching down with both a watchful eye and much pride. The fruits of her work continue this weekend in Ely.

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