As Decision On Pumpkin Festival Permit Nears, Concerns About Safety Linger

Mar 18, 2015

Keene Pumpkin Festival
Credit Courtesy

A decision on whether to put an end to the city of Keene’s annual Pumpkin Festival could be made this week.

The city council is scheduled to decide Thursday whether to issue a permit to the nonprofit group Let It Shine, which organizes the event.

The festival was marred last by riots that occurred just outside the event’s footprint downtown. Dozens of arrests were made.

Ella Nilsen is a reporter for the Keene Sentinel. She joined NHPR’s Morning Edition producer Michael Brindley to talk about her reporting on the issue.

It’s fair to say the future of the festival is up in the air after a vote last week by a city council committee. Tell us what happened.

The Planning, Licenses and Development Committee of the Keene City Council, which is the committee that issues licenses for community events including the Keene Pumpkin Festival, decided on a unanimous vote, 5-0, to not renew the license for the 2015 Keene Pumpkin Festival. Councilors decided to vote that way without hearing from representatives from Let It Shine.

From the councilors who were there who did vote, what were their complaints? What did they say?

The councilors heard from both the Keene police and fire chiefs and I think the main concern is safety. In order for the festival go forward next year, both the Keene police and fire chiefs felt that they need to have a comprehensive safety plan to deal with the type of violence they saw last year or at least prepare for the event that may happen again. City officials estimated putting together this safety plan and the final costs of maintaining a safe festival footprint and the area around the festival could be around $200,000.

What have we heard from the group that organizes the event?

Not a lot. We’ve heard from people in the community saying they are angry at city councilors. Some people are happy about the decision and I think that’s a lot of people whose neighborhoods are affected by the loud parties and the all-weekend partying that happens around Pumpkin Festival. But a lot of people are very upset. This is a long tradition in Keene.

As far as Let It Shine goes, Ruth Sterling has emailed a letter to the editor of the Keene Sentinel and has written on social media that she hopes Keene officials put together a comprehensive safety plan, not just for the Pumpkin Festival, but for other events in Keene, such as national sports championship games and things like that. But not a lot has been heard from Let It Shine.

This was just a recommendation from the committee. It now goes before the full 15-member board Thursday. What do you think the chances are the festival actually won’t happen?

It’s difficult to say because there is definitely a possibility that the rest of the members of the council could kick it back down to committee and say reconsider this, we want you to take a little bit more time and hear from Let It Shine before you make a full decision.

That being said, besides the councilors who were on the committee and made the decision last week, there were a lot of other councilors in the audience who recommended voting to deny it. I would say the majority of the city council feels pretty strongly that they don’t want to go forward with the festival next year.

As you mentioned, this is a longstanding event in the city. This year would mark the 25th anniversary. Has there been any talk about what the loss of the festival would mean for the city economically?

It hasn’t been as much that at least on social media as it has just been this is a loss of a great family tradition, but I think that’s also something that’s being talked about. There is a little bit of debate I think among shopkeepers and people who are more up on the economic situation of Keene than I am of how much business the Pumpkin Festival really does bring. A lot of people say it’s great and it’s by far our biggest day of the year. Other people say it’s just a nuisance and we don’t really care either way.