Passing the Candle

Any all-volunteer community event needs community support to not only continue, but thrive. The Keene Pumpkin Festival is such an event, and its future hangs in the balance.

In what would have been the year of the 28th downtown festival, its organizers, constrained by COVID-19 restrictions for large gatherings, decided to ask community members to “self-manage” the event this month. That meant encouraging downtown and area businesses along with schools and citizens to carve and display jack o’ lanterns in front of their homes and businesses, and post pictures of their creations on the official Facebook page (facebook.com/keenepumpkinfestival).

At the same time, some members of the nonprofit organization’s board who had organized the event over the past decade thought it was a good time to pass the candle to the next generation of gourd lovers.

Since the first in 1991, the Keene Pumpkin Festival experienced more than its fair share of celebratory distinctions — a Guinness World Record was set several times, lost and reclaimed in 2013 (30,581 simultaneously lit jack o’ lanterns).

Over the years, the festival earned tens of thousands of dollars for area nonprofit groups. Twenty years in, though, running such a huge event became too much for Center Stage Cheshire County, which festival founder Nancy Sporborg had started in 1994. Without new management, the festival would have ended in 2010.

In stepped Let It Shine, led by Ruth Sterling of Sterling Design & Communications.

But even when Center Stage gave up control, a new dynamic was emerging that eventually became the festival’s downfall. College students and others, drawn to the city by the festive holiday atmosphere, were causing an increasing ruckus. They held parties, then made their way downtown for pumpkin smashing and other vandalism. When police secured the festival’s footprint, the parties remained on the fringes, but steadily grew. It all erupted in 2014, when thousands of partiers faced off with police on Winchester Street, a confrontation that drew national attention, and embarrassment, to the city, the college and the festival — though the latter was enjoying one of its most successful events at the time.

The following year, city officials denied organizers a permit.

Let It Shine went elsewhere, setting up a similar festival in Laconia. After a couple of years, the group dropped out of that event and returned to Central Square in 2017 with a much smaller footprint that was geared toward children and continued in 2018 and 2019.

There has been an alternative Monadnock Pumpkin Festival held at the Cheshire Fairgrounds for the past several years.

Many in the community who appreciate the economic draw of the festival are frustrated and want the festival to return to its heyday. At the same time, others were already wary of the size of the event before the riot and are glad to see it gone.

The surprising success of the recent Harry Potter birthday celebration downtown — amid the pandemic, no less — could offer insights or even a direct connection toward a forward path.

Tim Zinn, co-event manager, production manager and Let It Shine board chair, announced the organization’s plans in a statement sent to news outlets this month signed by him and Sterling.

“Although three members of our Board own property in Keene, most are spending time in other locales,” he said. The board agrees a team with a “well-rounded skill set” — business, logistical, marketing, technical and communications support — could run the festival in its current scope.

Let It Shine has set a deadline of Nov. 30 to hand ownership of the future festival over to a new team and will work through a training and transition period.

Sterling listed several ideas in a blog post to spark conversation about future leadership, suggesting pieces of the festival are manageable and could be divided in creative ways, with elements such as the pumpkin tower at the head of the square returned gradually.

Elm City Rotary Club, which organizes the annual Clarence DeMar marathon, could possibly handle cleanup, for instance. Or perhaps the Keene Rotary Club, which provides attractive banners downtown, could manage the school carving component.

Among other ideas Sterling presented are Keene State College taking over management. Students have been key volunteers for the past three years, she pointed out, and the festival was cited in research as being students’ favorite memory of their college career and a major reason for their interest in attending.

The local dental association was another suggestion. “Our area dentists and orthodontists have long supported the family-friendly event,” the blog post reads, and could turn the festival into a PR program for the “smile-makers” of the Keene area.

So far, according to Sterling, two volunteers have signed up for the 2021 festival. Let It Shine welcomes all ideas for operating the future festival.

Those interested should visit pumpkinfestival.org to provide contact information.