Pumpkin proposal

Councilors of the planning, licenses and development committee listen to a city staff member answer a question regarding a proposal Wednesday night. From right, councilors George S. Hansel, Philip M. Jones, Chairman David C. Richards, Margaret M. Rice and Bartlomiej K. "Bart" Sapeta sit on the committee.

In the throes of a snowy winter, the brains behind Keene’s pumpkin festival are already planning October’s event and starting the city permitting process. And if Wednesday’s committee meeting is any indication, city councilors might find a request for limited food sales at this year’s event palatable.

To change it up a bit this year, festival’s organizer Let It Shine Inc. hopes to add three or four spaces for youth-oriented nonprofit groups to fundraise selling pre-made foods or beverages.

No on-site cooking would be involved, according to Let It Shine’s application to use city property, and the handful of refreshment stands would be set up on the west side of Central Square in the parking spaces in front of Pedraza’s.

Proposed for Sunday, Oct. 27, the Keene Pumpkin Festival in the HeART of Downtown Keene would have the same footprint on Central Square as last year, with generally the same entertainment and no change in the 5,000 jack-o’-lantern cap.

The City Council’s planning, licenses and development committee voted unanimously Wednesday to place the request on more time, allowing city staff to conduct necessary protocol meetings with the organizers.

In other words, absent any obvious criticism from councilors, it looks good for Let It Shine so far.

Tim Zinn, chairman of Let It Shine’s board, presented before the committee Wednesday and told The Sentinel later that he was pleased by the outcome.

“I think getting last year under our belt probably helped,” Zinn said, citing the good weather and turnout. “… I think (the councilors) have a better handle on what our current event will produce.”

Founded in the early 1990s, the Keene Pumpkin Festival grew to eventually display up to 30,000 or more jack-o’-lanterns, drawing tens of thousands of visitors.

In October 2014, rioting broke out during the festival — but outside its boundaries — near the Keene State College campus, resulting in property damage, injuries and dozens of arrests. The following year, the City Council denied the festival a license, citing safety and cost concerns.

After a hiatus, Let It Shine resurrected a smaller version of the event in 2017, confined to a more limited area with about 3,500 pumpkins carved by area schoolchildren and with no food vendors.

Last year, Let It Shine tried unsuccessfully to add a handful of refreshment stands — which would’ve been operated by nonprofit organizations — and increase the pumpkin cap by 1,000. The planning, licenses and development committee voted against those proposals.

Committee Chairman David C. Richards was clear at the time that his concern revolved around the implications of the festival growing too quickly.

“My entire thought process is that I don’t want to see this get any bigger until it’s tested for a few years with just the kids,” Richards said at a July meeting. “It’s four vendors this year. What will it be next year? Twelve vendors? Six nonprofits? And then we’re right back on track to where we were.”

A few days later, Let It Shine submitted a revised request nearly identical to the 2017 event, scrapping the vendors and additional jack-o’-lanterns. The committee recommended that proposal, and the City Council approved the license.

Last year’s contention didn’t arise at Wednesday’s meeting. Let It Shine’s request was discussed and moved to a vote in about 15 minutes.

Ward 5 Councilor Philip M. Jones told Zinn he’s happy to see the incorporation of nonprofit organizations.

At its height, the pumpkin festival was more than an economic driver through tourism and pushing attendees into downtown businesses. The event represented a substantial fundraising opportunity for many area nonprofit organizations, some of which earned a significant portion of their annual budgets at the festival.

Jones also commended Let It Shine for growing the event gradually.

“You were a victim of your own success and outside factors that you couldn’t control,” Jones said. “… The other thing is, you became a Northeast destination event to the point where certain Keene residents would leave town for the weekend because they didn’t want to be here.

“We’ve scaled back. You’ve done a great job,” he added.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Zinn said it “feels good to all be on good terms again” with the committee.

Despite last year’s festival garnering about 900 fewer jack-o’-lanterns than the 2017 event, Zinn said he and the organizers were pleased with the turnout and “really felt like the magic was back.” He explained the dip in carved pumpkins was because a middle school opted out of participating; nearly all the jack-o’-lanterns in the new festival are carved by area school students and staff.

“But we’re really not disappointed. We still feel like we had a great festival in a lot of ways,” Zinn said. “… You know, the count really isn’t the goal right now. It’s about getting the community all on the same page and putting on a great festival for the students, for the kids.”

Let It Shine is always looking for volunteers for the event, he said. Anyone interested can go to facebook.com/keenepumpkinfestival for more information.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.