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Festival fun starts flowing at Helen's Oktoberfest
Towns economy hinges on tourism
A Walhalla Dancer spins around as she participates in a parade as part of Oktoberfest on Saturday in Helen. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

With a second tapping of the keg, Helen kicked off its 39th annual Oktoberfest on Saturday afternoon.

The celebration, which began Thursday and will last for 46 days until Nov. 2, is the world’s longest-running Oktoberfest, according to Kay Mathena, executive director of the Greater Helen Chamber of Commerce.

Festival organizers tapped a keg of Miller Lite, the official sponsor of Helen’s Oktoberfest, on Thursday evening for "the locals," but held another keg-tapping ceremony Saturday afternoon for those who traveled far and wide to the celebration in White County’s Alpine village.

As well as serving as the world’s longest-running Oktoberfest celebration, the 46 days of revelry make a big economic impact on the city.

Anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 people will visit Helen, a city with a population of about 450, during Oktoberfest this year, Mathena said.

The festival brings in nearly 75 percent of Helen businesses’ annual revenue, Mathena estimates, and others in Helen’s business community agree the estimate is not far off.

Lara Varner, an assistant manager at Classics, a shop specializing in German collectibles, said the store’s open doors hinge on the success of each year’s Oktoberfest. Varner said the same is true for other shops in Helen.

"If we don’t have a good Oktoberfest, then a lot of businesses aren’t going to make it," said Varner, a four-year employee of the Helen shop.

Classics serves about 7,000 people on weekends during the Oktoberfest celebration, Varner said.

"During the week, it’s not quite as busy, but during October it actually gets a little bit busier than it is in September," Varner said.

In the weeks leading up to Oktoberfest, Varner and other Classics employees spend their days stocking the shelves and decorating for the deluge of tourists who will come to the Chattahoochee River village, seeking German-themed thrills and trinkets.

Many of those who make it inside Classics are looking for a beer stein and German hats, but those who wander into Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen are usually looking for the ever popular Chattahoochee Snappers, said John Roche, the store’s production manager.

In one week last October, Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen rolled out 8,800 Chattahoochee Snappers, or caramel turtles, for Oktoberfest revelers, Roche said.

Hansel & Gretel does nearly one-quarter of its business in the month of October, and has to produce nearly double the number of confections it would make on a day in the summer, Roche said.

"(In) September you have real good crowds on the weekends ... but October, you have a great crowd every day of the month," Roche said. "It seems October 1st, people just show up."

Such a big tourist attraction takes a whole year of planning, Mathena said. Already, the dates for next year’s celebration have been decided and the German bands who perform in the city’s Festhalle will have signed a contract for next year by the time they leave, she said.

Yet many who come to Helen during the 46 day celebration miss the actual Oktoberfest, Mathena said. Revelers can experience the real Oktoberfest today with free admission to the Helen Festhalle, which is where authentic Oktoberfest activities — German food, wine, dancing and music — can be found, Mathena said.

"The majority of those (who come in October) have never been to the Festhalle. ... They’ve come to Helen and all the restaurants and the retail is all in Oktoberfest mode so they think they’ve been to Oktoberfest," she said.