Cherry Blossom Festival dealing with departure of CEO

What effect the resignation of the Cherry Blossom Festival’s president and CEO will have on the annual event was unclear Wednesday as several board members said they remained stunned by Wright Tilley’s resignation.

Tilley, president and CEO of the festival and the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission, announced Tuesday that he would be leaving Macon to become executive director of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority in North Carolina. His last day is Dec. 23.

“I haven’t talked to a lot of people. I’m still just shocked,” said Carolyn Crayton, festival board member and founder. “We just learned about this, and we’re all just so surprised, and we hate to see him go.”

Festival board member Bill Fickling III said the board has not had any formal discussions about Tilley’s departure. He said he expects festival board Chairman Lee Robinson and festival Chairman Steve Jukes to call a meeting early next week to discuss it.

“We are putting together the transition plan,” Robinson said in a voice-mail message. “Not a whole lot to talk about until I get something put down.”

Fickling said Tilley’s departure “will definitely have an effect” on the festival, but “I think we can work around it.”

Much of the planning for the festival, which is scheduled for March 20-29, is done in December and January, he said.

Festival officials right now are in the middle of securing sponsorships, which Fickling said are coming in slowly but progressing.

“As you might expect with the economy, things are moving slower than normal,” he said. “As far as we know, we’ll have enough in time for the festival.”

Tilley will take a lot of knowledge with him when he leaves, but he has said he will be available for questions by phone, Fickling said.

Tilley pledged Tuesday night that planning for the festival would continue as usual, and he said he would continue securing sponsorships and entertainment contracts until his departure.

Also Tuesday, Robinson said Tilley was going to move up a lot of the tasks that he normally would wait until January to tackle.

“We’re going to accelerate some things,” he said at the time. “Of course, it will be a challenge to us.”

This year, festival officials are rethinking the event and are kind of breaking the festival’s mold to attract a larger audience.

“We’re working hard to get younger people involved in the festival,” he said Tuesday. “We’re trying to be smart about the events and make sure we don’t have high-risk (weather-related) events.”

Last year, the festival lost about $140,000. Officials attributed the loss to the poor economy and bad weather. The street party was canceled because of rain.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.