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As Keene Pumpkin Festival moves to Laconia, a new event sprouts in Swanzey

Last modified: 11/5/2015 2:03:44 PM
For decades, Keene was synonymous with the Monadnock region’s biggest annual event – the pumpkin festival.

But after students from Keene State College and other schools rioted last fall, city officials decided the festival could not continue with their support. Now, the festival has sprouted two offshoots: The organizers of the Keene Pumpkin Festival moved their event to Laconia, while another group has revived the pumpkin spirit with the Monadnock Pumpkin Festival in Swanzey, right down the road from Keene.

Keene city councilors dealt a final blow to the Keene Pumpkin Festival in March when they chose not to grant a license to organizers, citing the high costs of keeping the festival footprint and surrounding area safe.

“The thought process the city went through, it was not easy and it was not a quick decision,” said Keene Mayor Kendall Lane. “There were serious concerns about security.”

Rowdy parties held during Pumpkin Festival weekend at Keene State College had been a tradition for years, but the ones on Oct. 19, 2014, quickly spun out of control.

While blissfully unaware festivalgoers gazed at pumpkins along Keene’s Main Street, a seething mass of college-aged students a few blocks over ripped up street signs, pelted police and EMS workers with beer cans, lit fires and flipped a car.

Emergency responders later told local journalists the crowd was unlike anything they had ever experienced.

“I was confronted with 60,000 people in downtown Keene with a riot going on a block away, and those people in the riot were trying to get downtown into the Pumpkin Festival,” Lane said.

He remembers sitting in the Keene Fire Station with other city officials, listening to call after call come across the scanner.

“It was a terrifying situation for a lot of the ambulance drivers who were going down there to help individuals injured as a result of bottles being thrown and finding themselves the targets,” Lane said.

Multiple people were injured throughout the day, and perpetrators were arrested in the weeks and months that followed.

In the aftermath of the riots, the community was divided on whether to continue the tradition of pumpkin festival. While many said they were sad to see the event shuttered, others said it had grown too large and safety concerns outweighed everything else.

This spring, festival organizer Let It Shine asked the city to come up with a comprehensive safety plan, not only for the festival, but for other big events.

City officials estimated it would cost $250,000 to add security to a 2015 festival, and Lane said he didn’t want to saddle taxpayers with the additional cost.

“We had the outlines of a security plan, and it was clear that security plan was going to have a very high price tag associated with it,” Lane said. “Could we justify the taxpayers to pick up that added cost?”

Keene Pumpkin Festival founder Nancy Sporborg said she believes city officials didn’t try hard enough to make it work.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that we could have found a way to run a safe, beautiful pumpkin fest 2015,” Sporborg said. “We didn’t even try.”

Sporborg started the festival in 1991 and ran it for seven years. She said watching the event come to an end this year was very difficult for her.

“I’m really passionate about this event. I really believe it’s a beautiful thing, so it really was a painful thing for me to watch as the pumpkin festival was thrown out of town,” she said. “It’s really a shame. It breaks my heart.”

Still, the end of the festival spawned two new ones. Let It Shine will take its event to Laconia this year, while a group of organizers in southwestern New Hampshire is starting the Monadnock Pumpkin Festival, to be held at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in neighboring Swanzey. Both events are scheduled for Saturday.

A group effort by the Laconia Chamber of Commerce, Laconia Motorcycle Week organizer Charlie St. Clair and Let It Shine officials transplanted to the event to the Lakes Region.

Laconia Mayor Edward Engler said his city was happy to host the fall-themed event.

“This will be good for the community and the region, and we need to do whatever possible to make this work,” Engler said.

With years of experience handling motorcycle week crowds, Engler said his police and emergency responders are more than equipped to handle big crowds. Laconia officials are preparing for 30,000 to 40,000 festival attendees, he said.

“People are almost universally looking forward to this and are participating,” Engler added. “It’s not going to fail to reach success for a lack of enthusiasm.”

Meanwhile, in Swanzey, local organizer Memorable Events LLC is busy setting up its own festival.

A few days after the Keene City Council rejected Let It Shine’s permit in March, Memorable Events owner Jennifer Matthews was driving past the Cheshire Fairgrounds. A light bulb went off, she said.

She proposed it to the fair’s board of directors and Swanzey town officials, who were “very receptive.”

“I can’t even speak highly enough of them,” she said. “It honestly gives me chills how amazing they’ve been to work with.”

Matthews said the new location allows locals to keep a cherished tradition, with a new twist.

Many things will be the same as the Keene festival, but Matthews said the new location will allow her group to have new attractions, including a pumpkin catapult, fireworks, hay rides and haunted barns.

“It’s a very grassroots festival,” she said. “We’re bringing it back to really family friendly. No alcohol is allowed.”

Sporborg says while she hopes she’ll someday see the event return to Keene, she’s happy to see new ones springing up.

“I think the more pumpkin festivals there are in this world, the better off this world will be,” she said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)


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