Things looked grim for the North Country Fair three years ago when the fair was hijacked by a profit-minded promoter. The Same Old People, the loose-knit volunteer crew that had put on the art, craft and music festival on the Arcata Plaza at the end of each summer since 1974, regrouped and, with support from the City Council, managed to take back the fair.
But now another threat looms -- this time coming from city agencies demanding new fees and changing rules on use of the Plaza. Among the newest of those rules: demands that event organizers take financial responsibility for the state of the grass growing beneath partiers' feet.
"This could be the last year of the North Country Fair," said fair manager Matthew Cook. "It's gotten so expensive to deal with the city that we've had to raise our booth fees to the point where we don't know if we'll sell them."
This week Cook and the Same Old People's board of directors sent a letter to the council asking for help. After laying out some history on the fair and on the increased use of the town square for special events like the Oyster Festival and the Pride Festival, the Fourth of July Jubilee, they acknowledged the impact on city services and on the Plaza.
"The pressure on staff has increased accordingly," they wrote, "and this has been made worse by recent economic recession. The City's response has been to shift this pressure to the community groups that sponsor public events. Insurance, damaged grass, garbage, use of alcohol, security, police, non-profit requirements -- problems worked out years ago -- now have to be annually re-negotiated, with new processes and new expense, more and more of it borne by the people who have done this for decades as a gift to the community."
According to Cook the biggest problem is a new restriction on how the Arcata Plaza is utilized. "They've told us we can no longer use the grass, which accounts for about $6,000 of our booth space," he said. "We stand to lose about 30 booths. There's no other place to put them."
Why no booths on the grass? "They claim that there are now so many events that the grass can't handle it," said Cook. "For years the Parks and Rec would always say 'Oh, the grass will grow back. Don't worry about it.' Now all of a sudden they say grass isn't growing back anymore."
As head of the City of Arcata's Recreation Dept., Heather Stevens is the gatekeeper for special event applications. Since she's only been on the job a year, she says she hasn't seen any change in permitting rules for use of the Plaza. In fact, the rules laid out by the city say, "Booth set up on grass surfaces is discouraged and requires special approval."
So what's changed is that approval is now denied. Why? "In the last two years there has been significant impact to the turf," said Stevens. "Dan Diemer, the Park Superintendent, has taken multiple photos and we've retained deposits because of the impact to the lawn area after events."
Police fees are another significant increase in event cost. In recent years a grant from ABC paid for officers to watch for illegal alcohol use. Now the grant is gone and the police want $2,000 to pay for additional officers.
Same Old People board member Mark Cortright of Liscom Hill Pottery figures the trouble is a too-many-cooks syndrome with city bureaucracy. "We used to just deal with the city manager, that was in the good ol' days."
Now there are too many bureaucrats defending their turf, according to Cortwright, among them Police Chief Randy Mendoza, who is currently serving as city manager while Michael Hackett is on medical leave.
Once the SOP board crunched the numbers, they figured between increased fees and lost revenue, it will cost $11,000 more to run the fair this year. "That will break the bank," said Cortright. "We won't have money to do it another year."
The same Plaza-use rules and fees apply for the Chamber of Commerce's Fourth of July Jubilee, where the policing payment will add $600 to this year's expenses. Usually the hope for the chamber is that the event makes enough money to offset the cost of the fireworks display.
"People don't realize what a monumental task it is to put these things on," said Arcata Chamber director Brenda Bishop, who had to redraw the plan for this year's event. It was made more complex because the 4th falls on a Saturday, so the Farmer's Market will share the Plaza.
Bishop noted she's had to raise vendor permits 25-30 percent on the set-up. Numbers of toilets required have increased, and she said, "We have to increase security in addition to the police. Insurance is outrageous. I've already had several calls from vendors who won't be coming. A lot of them won't come because they can't afford the million dollar insurance required by the city. There's too much paperwork, too many permits and they hate the new setup."
Bishop's projection for the bottom line for the Jubilee is similar to the SOP's: She figures the chamber could be down $11,000-$12,000.
Other nonprofits that have used the Plaza for events in the past have simply given up. "Pride has already left Arcata," noted Cook.
Jennefer White is coordinator for the annual gay rights Pride Festival, which draws somewhere around 2,000 people to the Arcata Plaza. "As far as I can tell, it's Parks and Rec freaking out about the lawn," said White, explaining that the Pride Festival does not have booths on the grass, but, as with most Plaza events, a stage is set up near the flagpole and people dance on the grass in front of it. Like other organization they paid a deposit to cover potential turf repair.
White said this year they had trouble finding a date that would work for them. "Last year after Pride the city came to us and said two things. One was, 'Please don't have the festival in September again. We have too much going on on the Plaza. Pick a different month.' Then a month later we got a call from the police saying the grant used to pay for policing the event is not going to come through, so we will have to pay for the police."
The Pride folks ultimately decided the best solution was to move their festival to Eureka. Plans are to hold Pride 2009 on the last Saturday in August at Sequoia Park Zoo.
"The bottom line is, we need the council to step up and save the events on the Plaza, said Cortright. "And it's not just our event, it's all events. And they have to work that out with the city manager, Parks and Rec, whoever they've spread the power out to."
He's hoping current council members won't want to be remembered for letting a 35-year Arcata tradition die on their watch. "I'm at a point in my life where I can't save the Fair every three years," he said. "Once in my life is fine; I'll even put up a good fight the second time, but I'm not ready to do it every time the city reinvents the wheel."