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Tradition goes on as Laconia welcomes exiled pumpkin festival



Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2015
After 24 years in Cheshire County, the exiled Keene Pumpkin Festival will go on this year in Laconia.

The anniversary event Oct. 24 will be called “New Hampshire’s 25th Annual Pumpkin Festival,” dropping the reference in its moniker to the city that declined to relicense it this month.

Laconia officials enthusiastically welcomed the festival, which in 2013 set the world record for the most jack-o-lanterns in one place, and announced the decision yesterday, ending a brief period of speculation about its future.

Keene’s city council denied a license to organizers this month, citing cost and safety concerns after last year’s event took a violent turn when alcohol-fueled riots broke out nearby. During the weekend of the festival, the city and Keene State College had become a destination for partiers, who drew international attention last year when they caused an uproar that led to injuries, property damage and more than 100 arrests, as well as a $90,000 overtime bill for the city’s cleanup efforts.

Laconia Mayor Ed Engler said the city council there hasn’t formally adopted the festival, but he contacted each councilor and found unanimous support. The city plays host to many events, including the largest in the state in Laconia Motorcycle Week, which typically attracts attendance in the hundreds of thousands, Engler said.

“I think we do have a different situation here” as compared with Keene, Engler said. “This is not bigger than motorcycle week, and we’ve been doing motorcycle week a long time, so I think we know what we’re doing, our public safety officials know what they’re doing and I don’t anticipate any problems at all.”

Engler said the group organizing the pumpkin festival, Let It Shine, has committed to bear some of the safety-related costs.

Let It Shine Executive Director Ruth Sterling said the event in Keene usually brought between 50,000 and 80,000 attendees. Sterling said three weeks ago she didn’t know where the festival would be held and termed the speedy plan B a “miracle.”

“If this miracle hadn’t happened, we would have done something. One pumpkin is a festival if your heart’s in the right place,” Sterling said.

Sterling said the founder of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, Nancy Sporborg, is working in Keene to promote the Laconia event.

“The heart, the spirit, the joy, the visuals – that’s what gave me the impetus to go on – is that I can’t imagine not seeing a pumpkin tower in October,” Sterling said, referring to the event’s iconic 35-foot tower of nearly 1,000 jack-o-lanterns.

“Looking at kids’ faces looking at that, I just gave myself shivers. . . . If we can give 6-year-olds that, who cares if it’s 80 miles up the highway?” she asked.

Engler said many of the details of the festival still need to worked out, but assured the roughly 40 attendees of a press conference held in the historic downtown railroad station yesterday that the city has the necessary infrastructure to comfortably host the festival. Four of six city councilors were in attendance to show their “enthusiastic endorsement and enthusiastic support” and the other two also support the project, Engler said.

Engler recalled as a child when he brought up an idea that was “off the wall or unexpected” to his mother, “the typical answer is ‘We’ll see,’ ” he said.

“You know what that meant,” he added.

“What I’m here today to accentuate, if I can, is that our attitude in Laconia is not, ‘We’ll see.’ Our attitude toward this event is going to be ‘We’ll do.’ ” he said.

Sterling said Let It Shine will coordinate with several towns hosting their own pumpkin-carving festivals the week before the Laconia event – “potentially including Claremont, Nashua, Hampton Beach and even Keene.” The products of those events will be refrigerated and delivered to Laconia, she said, “as part of a statewide effort to rise above and heal.”



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)