Advocates for keeping Keene’s annual Pumpkin Festival going said at a forum Tuesday the loss of revenue to local nonprofits would be devastating, while those who want to see the festival end raised concerns about whether the riots that marred this year’s festival will get worse.
"Is it responsible to dig in our heels when there is a very real possibility this will happen again?" said Beth Truman, a Keene resident and Pumpkin Festival volunteer. "Luckily this didn't result in any deaths, but what if there is a death next year? ...It is time for it to end."
Truman was among several residents and Keene State students who spoke at Tuesday’s forum, which was meant to mark the beginning of a community dialogue about whether the Pumpkin Festival should continue.
Next year would mark the festival’s 25th anniversary.
While there were no incidents within the festival's downtown footprint the weekend of Oct. 17 and 18, a few blocks away riots raged for hours resulting in numerous injuries, fires in the street, and considerable damage.
In the aftermath, dozens of people have been arrested, many of whom are Keene State College students, and the fate of whether the festival should continue hangs in the balance.
Officials from the city of Keene called the forum, which was hosted at the Young Student Center at Keene State to get input from residents as to whether the city should continue to license and help pay for the festival.
Residents were encouraged to submit their comments to the city through Dec. 12.
Keene State College President Anne Huot said students are concerned about what happened and want to help find a solution.
She said school officials and students had, "done everything possible," to aid in the investigation by handing over videos, names and photos of the rioters.
"Every student…found responsible, has been held accountable," Huot said.
Huot said the college has disciplined 170 students found to have been involved.
She called the college's planning before the Pumpkin Fest "highly coordinated and aggressive.” While she recognized students were involved she pointed out that this sort of behavior happens all over the country and many of the rioters involved "had no affiliation" with Keene State students.
"That does not obviate our responsibility," she said. "It just provides a context for what happened here."
One Keene State student went a step further.
"Keene State was part of the problem," said John LaFord. "No more of this, 'we weren't involved, ' or 'it was other people,' who did this. We did this. …We were part of the problem and it's about time we recognize what we did, what we're doing and what we are all going to do to fix it."
Nearly everyone who spoke pointed to binge drinking as being at the heart of the riots and an ongoing problem that the college needs to address.
Those in favor of keeping the festival argued the event itself was safe and that the trouble was in the outlying neighborhoods. They also said the loss of quality of life to the people of Keene who love the festival is too great a cost to pay.
Some suggested moving the festival to another venue. Others asked the college send students home for a fall break during Pumpkin Festival weekend as they do for St. Patrick's Day.
Resident Harry Boynton suggested giving those determined to party a space at the Keene State Athletic Fields for that weekend to do so.
However, many who spoke pushed for completely shutting down the event, given the cost of trying to protect festival-goers from the large raucous, parties that regularly coincide with it.
Some said there is no way to guarantee the trend of escalating drunkenness and violence seen in the past few years can be avoided.
Let It Shine, the group that runs the festival, has not yet made a decision about whether to hold the festival next year. If the group moves forward, it will have to apply for a permit from the city to hold the event.
Ruth Sterling, who has organized the Pumpkin Festival for the past four years, said the community should be able to find a solution.
"People have been squawking about these same problems with the festival for years," Sterling said. "All the answers to these problems are in the brains of the people in this room. …We can do this."