Keene got some good news this past week with a report that a new group of residents has taken on the challenge of running Let It Shine, the nonprofit organizer of the Keene Pumpkin Festival.
With an eye toward reviving the event, the new board members hope to restart the festival beginning in fall 2022. Last September, faced with a pandemic and weary of trying to keep the festival going at the minimal level allowed by the city, Let It Shine’s board announced its intent to step away, with the hope new faces would take the reins. We’re happy to see that’s the case. The downfall of the festival, through no fault of its organizers, was unfortunate, and a return of the event at something more than has been allowed during the past few years ought to be welcome.
Still, while a larger such event might add to the city, the dynamic that led to its downfall cannot be forgotten. Security, surrounding not only the event itself, but also any ancillary gatherings, must be addressed if it grows. It cannot be allowed to become an “attractive nuisance,” either to college students or others.
New member Lisa Scoville, a North Carolina transplant who has become an active member of the city’s community, explained the concept for a new event will include live music, a chili cookoff and trick-or-treating. And, of course, lots of decorated pumpkins.
She described the plans as for a festival bigger than what Let It Shine has been running in recent years, but smaller than the world-renowned affair it had become at its peak. It remains to be seen whether the Keene City Council will be up for a larger festival. Its members have been famously skittish to approve anything larger than the footprint of Central Square or including freelance vendors.
Such concerns might be lessened by the fact that no less than three city councilors are among the organization’s new board members. It makes sense that as a new wave of community-minded city residents steps up to take on such challenges, it might include some crossover with the newer, younger, members of the council. There are, after all, only so many capable, willing community members to go around in a city the size of Keene.
However, having three city councilors serving on the board of a high-profile nonprofit that cannot achieve its goals without the city’s assistance and approval is itself a dicey thing.
Mayor George Hansel’s position on the board of Monadnock Economic Development Corp. immediately raised eyebrows, and led to Hansel requesting the council allow him to abstain from any discussions and votes involving MEDC. So far, that’s been enough. But had MEDC not had issues of its own that have caused it to back away from the planned arts corridor and other projects, the time may have come where his dual roles would again be questioned.
Imagine the effect of having three councilors — a fifth of that group — holding key positions in an organization that can only succeed with the council’s backing. The festival cannot be held in Keene without a license, subject to the council’s approval. It cannot grow — to include food and/or other vendors, or raised scaffolding, or live performances — without approval. The recent negotiations for approval of the event’s license have even included how many pumpkins would be allowed.
The organizers of any other public event will no doubt be paying close attention to see whether Let It Shine seems to be getting any more than an even shake.
Now, imagine the organizers succeed and want to grow the event. Might security once again become an issue? Remember, more than anything, the cost and planning of protecting the city during the event was what caused the council to reject a license in 2015, driving the festival to Laconia. If the police chief and/or city manager can’t reach an accord on security issues with Let It Shine, how might that affect their relationship with their “bosses” on the council? Even a promise to abstain from Let It Shine-related votes could leave the opportunity for an appearance of conflict.
We’re not suggesting a conflict would occur. And again, in a pond this size, there are only going to be so many civic-minded, energetic fish willing to step up. But city councilor is a powerful position, and those holding that power need to be very careful about how their wielding of it is perceived.