Wednesday, Feb 12 2014 04:41 PM

Whiskey flows where river slows

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield Model A Club members cross a Kernville bridge during the annual Whiskey Flat Days parade in 2013

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dressed in his Old West wear, Bob Easterday rides an old-school bicycle in the 2013 Whiskey Flat Days parade

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

No one wants rain and snow -- and the raging river they bring -- more than the tourist-dependent businesses of the Kern River Valley. Just not this weekend.

The region's annual celebration of the Old West -- Whiskey Flat Days -- begins Friday and lasts through President's Day weekend. The more typical wet weather in February has historically discouraged visitors to the annual event, now in its 57th year, and the reverse also is true: Sunshine brings in the crowds.

Related Info

57th annual Whiskey Flat Days

When: Noon to sundown Friday, 9 a.m. to sundown Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday

Where: Kernville

Admission: Free

Information: gotokernville.com or 760-376-2629

"I'm hoping for 50,000 people," said Kernville Chamber of Commerce president Cheryl Borthick. "I have high hopes for this weekend because of the unusually good weather."

And it's not just tourists who come out when the weather's nice.

"We've got more vendors than we've probably had in the last five years," said Arianna Rogers, who is handling logistics for the chamber, which sponsors the event.

Rogers said the festival will host at least 130 vendors this year, compared to 120 last year, including food booths; handmade jewelry; clothing; soap; and art objects. Commercial businesses and non-profit groups also are booked, with booth space going for between $275 and $300.

"This is a great boon to the businesses that are struggling in the off-season," Rogers said.

"It's huge," Borthick echoed. "It means that we're going to make it to another summer."

Kernville's city fathers created the festival in 1957 to lure visitors to the area during the dormant winter, when tourism is at its lowest ebb. Borthick said the festival has become a primary source of income for the chamber itself, and also for many of the area's nonprofit organizations. But Whiskey Flat Days is also a much-needed shot in the arm for businesses throughout the Kern River Valley.

"We try to buy everything local," Borthick said. "It all stays in the valley."

That includes local hotels and campgrounds, restaurants, gas stations, shops of all kinds, along with local artisans and artists -- all the makings of an economy with one bona fide industry: tourism. Kernville, already a small community, saw its population decline in the decade between the last two census reports -- from 1,736 in 2000 to 1,395 in 2010. Borthick said she isn't surprised by the numbers.

"People can't find jobs up here," she said. "We really don't have any industry up here except the service industry."

Borthick notes that government agencies at all levels account for some of the workforce -- although many of those employees actually live in Bakersfield. The largest employer is Kern Valley Hospital, Borthick said, and there are a few banks and other financial services companies, real estate and construction, and family-owned ranches and farms in the area.

Borthick, owner and operator of Cheryl's Diner in Kernville, noted that some white-water rafting companies closed last summer because of the drought, and other companies hung on by offering alternative water sports, though they still suffered.

"We lost our whitewater economic engine last year because our whitewater rafting companies couldn't offer that," Borthick said.

That downturn drove several other businesses -- restaurants and mini-marts that cater to the water sports enthusiasts who didn't come last year -- out of business.

"Primarily because it was a terrible summer and they didn't have enough money to get through the winter," Borthick said. "And not even Whiskey Flat Days was going to help. I'm not hiring anyone. I've brought on a few people for the weekend."

So while the drought brings the threat of another bad summer, right now there is much to celebrate.

Borthick said the hotels are booked, there may be a few campsites still available, and the weekend is full of sunny, clear days and lots of fresh air. That hoped-for record number of visitors will enjoy a rodeo, a parade, the vendors' booths, live music and street dances, children's activities, a gold miners' camp and many other attractions. They also will see a newly spruced-up town.

"It's lovely enough here that the county of Kern invested $1.9 million into Kernville last year," Borthick said.

The improvement project added sidewalks and curbs in Circle Park and around town, plus a walkway around Riverside Park, including access for the disabled.

"They put in crosswalks and streetlamps -- they made it look like an old-fashioned town," Borthick said.

"It is tough to keep going, with a declining population. But it's a great place to live."

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