Conservation Society plans a scaled-down fundraiser next month at La Villita

In a year when Fiesta and every gala in the city were stamped as canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, the Conservation Society of San Antonio is trying to salvage some fun and fundraising in a socially distanced sort of way.

The three-hour evening Fall Heritage Festival — a scaled-down substitute for NIOSA, A Night In Old San Antonio — will have the feel of the hugely popular bash held during Fiesta each year to raise money for historic preservation and other programs.

The society, which has booked La Villita for the Nov. 6 event, increased the entry fee to $125 and restricted admission to 1,000 adults, who will have unlimited access to food and drinks served at booths, with two local bands providing entertainment.

To protect the safety of guests and volunteers from the virus, everyone will be required to maintain social distancing and wear a face covering, except when seated while eating and drinking, said Patti Zaiontz, society president.

In a normal year, the four-night NIOSA, billed as a “celebration for preservation,” packs more than 20,000 people nightly into the 4-acre La Villita area during Fiesta and is the society’s signature fundraiser.

Ubaldo Torres wears a tall, festive hat that he created as a Night in Old San Antonio, NIOSA, kicks off its first night in April 2018. The Conservation Society of San Antonio, the organizer of NIOSA, which was canceled this year along with the rest of Fiesta, is planning a smaller, one-night event on Nov. 6 to raise money.

To stage the festival, the organization received the permission of the city, which in recent weeks has eased restrictions on public facilities and outdoor gatherings as the spread of the virus has diminished, at least for now.

“This is not a NIOSA celebration, but San Antonians will notice many welcome comparisons to NIOSA in food and drink,” Zaiontz said. “The spread-out nature of this festival will harken back to the roots of our first festivals on the grounds of Mission San José.”

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The society’s switch to a fall festival is a first in nearly 75 years.

Marci Aguirre, left, and Paula Gallegos-Denton enjoy champagne during NIOSA on April 23, 2019. The Conservation Society of San Antonio, the organizer of NIOSA, which was canceled this year along with the rest of Fiesta, is planning a smaller, one-night event on Nov. 6 to raise money.

NIOSA’s roots date to 1936, when the society, then only 12 years old, held a one-night “Indian Harvest Festival” on the South Side mission grounds. The event moved to the River Walk in 1940 and was renamed the River Festival before it relocated to La Villita in 1947.

As a major event on the Fiesta schedule, NIOSA generates $1.5 million annually for the Conservation Society, which funds preservation grants, educational tours, advocacy programs, seminars, a resource library and two house museums.

In reaction to the pandemic, the Fiesta San Antonio Commission initially postponed Fiesta from April to Nov. 5-15. But in July, the commission canceled it for 2020, marking the first time since World War II that the annual citywide extravaganza, now spanning 11 days, was not held.

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The fall festival will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Nonrefundable e-tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday at saconservation.org or niosa.org. Guests must be at least 21 and must be prepared to show identification at the event.

Everyone is encouraged to bring nonperishable food items to donate to the San Antonio Food Bank at three entrance gates.

Scott Huddleston covers Bexar County government and the Alamo for the San Antonio Express-News. To read more from Scott, become a subscriber. shuddleston@express-news.net | Twitter: @shuddlestonSA

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