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Oktoberfest still going strong
Economy has little impact on Helen's annual celebration
K.G. and Janice Smith of Clarksville dance together Sunday afternoon at the Helen Festhalle as they joined the Oktoberfest crowds celebrating in the small White County town.

HELEN — Oktoberfest seems almost recession-proof.

Amid economic doldrums that have chipped away at most sectors of the tourism industry, it is as if someone forgot to tell the thousands of people who flock to Helen in the fall about the recession.

On Sunday, there was the familiar, crowded scene of merriment at the Alpine Village’s Festhalle, capacity 700. It was the same polka-dancing, beer-drinking, bratwurst-munching, lederhosen-wearing bunch that comes back year after year to celebrate the traditions of Bavaria.

"I love it," said Don Riechard of Snellville, gripping a tall mug of dark beer and sporting a hunter green Alpine hat covered in pins. "I love the music and the beer."

Riechard has been coming to Oktoberfest since it was first celebrated here in 1970. These days, he brings along his wife, daughter, son-in-law and 7-year-old grandson.

Riechard’s son-in-law, Joe Ahrens, said they’ve been making a weekend out of Oktoberfest since the mid-1990s. Like several people interviewed Sunday at the Festhalle, he was surprised that the turnout seemed little diminished from years past.

"Saturday night we couldn’t even get in — it was standing room only," Ahrens said. "It was unbelievable."

In Helen, which is celebrating its 40th year as a Bavarian village-themed tourist attraction, October is to many local business owners what December is to retailers — a make or break month.

"Definitely with us," said Bruce Markley, owner of Helen’s Cafe International for the past 25 years. "We have to have a big October."

And it seems so far, they have. On Saturday, Markley reported his restaurant being "mobbed" the night before, and he was looking for similar crowds this weekend, weather permitting. Weather, not the economy, has had the single biggest impact on Oktoberfest business, he said.

Paddy’s Taxi owner Arthur Atkinson said this year’s Oktoberfest traffic "looks pretty good," with a noticeable increase over last year, when gas prices kept some travelers away. Atkinson ran five taxis Saturday night, up from one taxi on an off-season night.

Helen City Councilman David Greear said as far as he can tell, "just as many people are coming as have ever been."

"Now, I don’t know as far as the spending and actual number of people staying in hotels," he added.

Indeed, there were some vacancies at Helen’s hotels on Sunday, and city officials have reported motel/hotel tax collections are down from previous years.

"I’ve noticed there’s more people coming up for the day instead of staying overnight," Markley said.

But overall, the tourism picture in Helen is much better than it could be, officials say.

"The majority of the business people I’ve talked to feel like they’ve had a good year, all things considered," said Debbie Gagliolo, director of the Alpine Helen/White County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. It helps that July has become nearly as big a month for Helen’s tourism business as October.

Jane Sims, director of the Helen Chamber of Commerce, said admission numbers at the Festhalle are up over last year. The chamber lowered admission prices slightly and also cut costs on some food items, she said.

"We’re pleased with the turnout we’ve had so far," Sims said.

Oktoberfest lasts from Sept. 10 through Nov. 1.

On Sunday inside the Festhalle, the polka band The Sauerkrauts played traditional German music as Gertrude Richards took it all in from her seat at the corner of a long table just off the dance floor.

Richards, 79, was born Gertrude Klingenschmidt in Berlin and remembers attending beer hall festivities in Munich before coming to America in her mid-20s. She now lives in Rabun County and comes to Helen’s Oktoberfest every weekend it is held.

"I like it because it reminds me of my own country," Richards said.

Another German native, 78-year-old Elizabeth Helmut, expressed surprise that the crowds have kept coming in the midst of an economic downturn.

"A couple of weeks ago I was wondering if people would come and whether they could afford it," she said. "But even Americans like this. They like the music and the food."

Sue Thomas, an Oktoberfest stalwart since the early ’90s, said this year’s turnout "has been tremendous."

"They’ve already sold out of the beer mugs, the hat pins, and last night they sold out of bratwursts," she said.

Longtime Oktoberfest attendee Heidi Schaefer led a line of dancers through the Festhalle wearing a traditional "dirndl" dress and hoisting a fake, oversized beer stein.

"They come because they want to get a little enjoyment in their life," Schaefer said. "Basically they want to hear the music and have a happy atmosphere, without any worries and without any care."