Signature events like the Strawberry Faire, Ashland Street Parties and the Railroad Run have become synonymous with the Center of the Universe.
But a heavy special event schedule has also taken its toll on town resources, according to Ashland officials.
Tuesday night, a draft “special events policy” came before town council, aimed at taking Ashland out of the event production business.
Vice-mayor George Spagna worked to develop the draft plan alongside Councilman James Foley and town staff. Spagna voiced concern that special event setup poses an undue burden on town staff, whose time could be better served meeting citizens’ needs, and that the private sector is better poised to meet event needs.
“I think people would generally prefer to see their brush picked up, their leaves picked up, their streets taken care of, instead of public works staff shuffling speakers and stages and tents,” Spagna said.
Foley said the “crux of the issue” for him was the somewhat inequitable way the town was supporting special events in Ashland.
“We were doing some things for some groups but maybe not for others, so we wanted to be fair and equitable to all groups, to level the playing field,” Foley said.
That led to further discussion over what the town’s role should be regarding private events.
Town manager Charles Hartgrove explained to council that beefing up Ashland’s special events offerings was one of the town’s priorities when he was hired in 2003. Well, that happened. Early into the job, Hartgrove said the town invested in special event equipment, and events in Ashland have grown since then, each adding “a lot to the community,” Hartgrove said.
However, this was in 2004, and before the recession, Hartgrove said it was common for police or public works personnel to log overtime working weekend events. Since 2008 the town has cut back, making it difficult to pay staff to cover outside events.
“We’ve tried to find a balance between not just the financial implications of the budget, but also the ability of our staff to work and partner with our stakeholders on these events,” Hartgrove said.
The issue was brought before town council at their retreat last December and staff has been working on a draft policy since then. Special event stakeholders had been contacted prior to that meeting.
“That’s the one thing that we’re very conscientious of. I don’t want to do anything to put events in jeopardy, so we’ll have plenty of time to work with folks to find solutions, to find compromises, and to make things work,” Hartgrove said. “We’re very fortunate to have great special events in Ashland…and I don’t want that to get lost in the shuffle when we’re talking about budget and personnel and things of that nature.”
Hank Lowry, representing Ashland Street Parties, pointed out the positive impact his organization has had. Only two events per year actually go toward funding the annual street parties; other funds are donated.
“We started this deal and basically will continue to partner with the town,” Lowry said. “We have no problem paying our way, but any money that we are asked to pay additional, will just take away from what we give back. It’s gotta come from somewhere.”
Bob Flanagan, a member of the Ashland Strawberry Faire board, worried about the effect the policy will have on the Faire, and called for possibly “grandfathering” in longstanding events.
“I would hate to see something like that go away. It would be like saying we’re not going to have the Ashland Variety Show anymore. It’s just one of those things that’s been there as long as I can remember,” he said.
Flanagan also said that having to cover costs such as security and stage setup could eat into the amount the Faire is able to award in scholarships and donations to non-profit organizations each year.
Douglas Goodman, Ashland police chief, said that in making the policy, local officials looked at other statutes across the state. He further urged council to adopt a policy to address, not only the signature events, but the numerous other events that impact the town
“It’s not just a discussion about the two folks that are represented here tonight…we have over 20 major events in town here,” Goodman said. “We just need to develop a policy because right now there is no policy.”
Town officials hope to hear input from citizens and stakeholders prior to any policy adoption. A draft policy is available on the town’s website and copies will be made available at Town Hall for interested parties.