In Keene, Forum Aims To Shape Pumpkin Festival's Cloudy Future

Dec 1, 2014

Downtown Keene is the setting for the Pumpkin Festival, but some say it's time for the event to find a new location.
Credit NHPR / Michael Brindley

This week, Keene residents will gather to discuss the future of the city’s Pumpkin Festival.

It’s been more than a month since riots marred this year’s festival, and led to dozens of arrests and thousands of dollars in damage.

After several years of issues involving college-aged adults, some believe it’s time for a change.

Jason Smart says the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival is one of his busiest days of the year.

“My store is packed, nonstop, all day long, which is, as I say it, most people say, ‘Oh, that sounds really good.’”

But, he says, there’s a downside.

“It is getting big. It’s getting too big,” Smart said. “And with that, it brings some big problems.”

Smart says sales are good that day, but could be better, and when you factor in preparation, staffing, and warding off theft…

“I would like to replace it with something else that’s small. You know, start over again,” he said. “If they do decide to keep it going, then I will have to really make a decision on if I will have my doors open that day or not. It is a thought that is going to hang over me until that day comes.”

Keene Chamber of Commerce President Phil Suter says while some businesses love the festival and do quite well that day, other choose to simply shut down to avoid the crowds.

“Various businesses around the city and around the region have long had different views on whether it’s the type of event that we should have. So that hasn’t really changed.”

Jason Smart, owner of Ye Goodie Shoppe, says while Pumpkin Festival brings in some extra business, he's not sure it's worth the hassle anymore.
Credit NHPR / Michael Brindley

There’s no exact figure on how much the event generates financially for Keene, but Suter calls it significant.

“A parallel to look at would be a city like Phoenix that’s going to host the Super Bowl,” he said. “You know, there’ll be people in that city who embrace it and think it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of people coming and a lot of money that comes in. And there’ll be other people that get out of town that day and just don’t want to be around.”

And you hear that from some residents, too.

Daryl Masterson has lived in Keene 42 years, and says he’s watched as the festival has deteriorated, especially over the past few years.

“You know, the public urination. I’m no saint, but some of the language that comes along while you’re trying to raise your kids. The fist fights. It’s just complete chaos.”

He says he’d love to see the festival moved, though he’s under no illusion that’s going to solve the problem.

“But you gotta start somewhere. I just don’t think having 80,000 people downtown with what could have been a much worse environment is the way to go.”

Just before this year’s festival, longtime resident Jessica White started a Facebook group called, “Keene Pumpkin Festival – Move It or Lose it.”

“You know, it seemed to be the trend,” she said. “Everyone wants to either move where the festival happens or lose it all together. The riots this year were like a boiling point for things that have been escalating over the past few years.”

White and others have thrown out two possible locations: Wheelock Park in Keene or the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey.

No matter where it’s held or if it’s held at all, Ward 1 city councilor Jan Manwaring says it was important to let cooler heads prevail before having a community dialogue.

“I mean people were so upset afterwards. We all got calls and emails,” she said. “Everything from shut it down, we never want to have it again to blaming Keene State to this isn’t fair to the Pumpkin Festival, everything was wonderful downtown. So it was very chaotic.”

Manwaring represents the area of the city hit hardest by the riots.

For the last two years, she’s voted against giving the license to hold Pumpkin Festival.

The event is run by a nonprofit group called Let It Shine. The group took over running the festival in 2010, keeping it going after the previous organizer bowed out.

Ruth Sterling is the event organizer and says her group hasn’t made a decision about whether to move forward next year.

Sterling hopes to hear some new ideas at this week’s forum, but says she’s not convinced moving the event is the right move.

She says the festival was always intended to showcase the city’s downtown.

“It has done that for 24 years and I’m not sure that we should let misguided youth be in charge of that decision.”

If the event is to move forward, Sterling says the group will need to find more money for security.

“If Laconia, New Hampshire can host Bike Week with all those bikers safely every year, I have to believe that Keene could host Pumpkin Festival,” she said. “But we need help.”

For his part, Keene Mayor Kendall Lane says the safety of festival-goers is also his top priority.

“If we can’t hold the festival safely, if we can’t hold the festival with assurance that we won’t have an event like we had this year, then I don’t think it should go forward.”

This year, the city provided roughly $50,000 to Let It Shine toward anticipated police costs. There’s still the unresolved issue of who pays for any costs that went beyond that.

Meanwhile, Keene police have made dozens of arrests and officials at Keene State College say they continue to hold students accountable.

President Anne Huot says 167 Keene State students were found to have been involved in the riot, and have been disciplined.

“The sanctions range from warnings in some cases to dismissal from the college in others. We’ve had seven suspensions, a dismissal, and a couple of students that withdrew in anticipation of that.”

Downtown business owner Dan Eaton says he doesn’t see how the festival can continue.

“In my opinion, it’s over,” he said. “It could be moved to a different location, like they’ve talked about, like the Cheshire Fairgrounds. But once they do that, it’s not the Pumpkin Fest anymore. It’s a brand new event.”

No matter what happens, Chamber of Commerce President Phil Suter says he expects push from some of the downtown merchants to move forward with the festival in some fashion.

“Next year would be the 25th year that the Pumpkin Festival has happened, so there’s certainly some people who think we want to have a 25th year.”

Tuesday night’s forum begins at 6:30 at Keene State College.