Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings and safety and service director Mel McKenzie said Wednesday that the city administration’s decision not to approve a permit for the Festival of the Bells to be held in the uptown area next year was brought on by safety concerns and complaints from local business owners.
McKenzie, who announced the decision Tuesday evening during a Hillsboro City Council meeting, told The Times-Gazette that a number of uptown business owners “expressed disdain” for the festival being held uptown, adding that one business owner on Wednesday offered to bring other business owners together in support of the decision.
Hastings said he, too, has heard complaints from business owners, and “just noticed the last couple of years… the attendance during the daytime particularly was way down, and certainly didn’t justify closing two state highways.”
McKenzie and Hastings said safety is a primary concern as well, especially in light of the mass shooting in Las Vegas in recent weeks and other terror incidents.
“Frankly, with some of the stuff going on anymore with these incidents, us being right smack in the middle of an intersection, it’s a bit of a safety concern, too,” Hastings said. “So we just felt this was finally time to address it… Part of the reason you didn’t hear an outcry at the meeting from other council members or anybody sitting out there is I think a lot of people had in their mind this was a long time coming.”
Current festival committee president Rick Williams declined to comment on the record. Michael Bradford, who was festival committee president for eight years, until last year, and served as a festival committee member for 16 years, said he was saddened by the decision, but hopes alternatives can be discussed.
“It is sad to hear that it won’t be held in uptown Hillsboro anymore,” he said. “Hopefully the festival committee will be able to find alternatives and make another successful festival.”
Committee member Alex Butler said the commitee was unaware of the decision prior to the council meeting and hasn’t had an opportunity to discuss it as a group.
City council member Justin Harsha said he was blindsided by the decision.
“It came as quite a surprise to me,” Harsha said. “I had no idea that was coming up. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ Because I’m the co-chair of the festival, and I kind of thought I was the liaison between the city and the festival, but I guess that’s not the way it’s working right now.”
Relocating the festival has been a topic that has emerged from time to time. The Times-Gazette reported on a council meeting in November 2015, “Harsha said the city and the festival would ‘work toward a better relationship so we can grow,’ and address a number of items, including the location of the festival, although it will not change in 2016, said Harsha.”
Harsha said Wednesday that the change will cause a number of problems for festival planning, including a possible expense increase for talent booking and difficulties finding an alternate location.
Bradford said the location of the festival has been discussed a number of times in the past, but the committee always pushed for the event to be held uptown, “because that’s the way it started.”
The festival began in 1985, inspired by a successful 1976 bicentennial celebration in Hillsboro. A Chamber of Commerce Committee had been formed in early 1984 to pursue an annual festival sponsored by the chamber. That same year, Dr. and Mrs. L. T. Odland wrote a letter to the editor of the Hillsboro Press-Gazette suggesting “Festival of The Bells” as the name of the event. A steering committee was formed with members including John Levo, chairman, Dave Fenstermaker, Richard Vanzant, Jim Hardin, Nancy Haley, Susan Sharp, Dorothy Hodson, Jim Ferrell, Ron Hennison, Hobie Hill and Dave Meyers.
“It has gotten really big and it’s probably outgrown the space uptown,” Bradford said Wednesday. “The fairground was tried at one time and it didn’t really work. The crowd just didn’t want to come out there.”
McKenzie said closing North High Street for the event while keeping Main Street open may be an option, but he favors the fairground option. Either way, “it being a free-admission festival with concerts that are free, people are going to show up for it, whether it’s uptown or at the fairgrounds. It’s still a Hillsboro festival,” he said.
McKenzie and Hastings both said there is ample time to have dialogue on the issue.
“By me notifying them 10 months in advance the intention of not approving a permit, I believe it’s pretty fair warning and opens up room for dialogue,” McKenzie said.
“We’re perfectly willing to work with them if there’s another suitable location in the city to do it,” Hastings said.
Harsha said he was surprised to hear a majority of businesses in the affected area didn’t support the festival being held uptown.
“I’ve talked to some business owners who will go to bat for it, because they do more business during the festival,” he said.
Harsha, a business owner himself, said the festival often causes an unusual amount of traffic in front of his business on West Walnut Street, “but it’s just three days a year.”
Harsha was originally appointed by council president Lee Koogler in 2015 to serve as the city’s liaison to the festival committee, representing the city’s concerns, but soon found himself a member of the FOB committee. He served as vice president of the committee for the 2017 festival.
As to whether those dual roles present a conflict, Harsha said, “I guess it could to some people, yes, and in that case, I would gladly let someone be the liaison to the festival, but that’s never come up… I never intended to do anything against the festival or council, and if someone feels there’s a conflict there, I would gladly step aside, no problem.”
Koogler said, “Ostensibly, it could become a conflict, but there are people who serve on council who also serve on other boards around the community… if it’s believed there’s a conflict in his ability to vote,” Harsha will abstain from voting.
Koogler said Harsha, who also serves as chairman of the city council’s Street and Safety Committee, will call a meeting of his committee to discuss the matter further.
In other business at Tuesday’s council meeting:
• McKenzie updated council on a number of projects throughout the city, including the North High Street Pathways Project, which is making headway as sidewalks are installed along North High Street, and the Colony Theatre site, which crews are currently prepping for rehab.
• Council heard Hastings give a report on the Hillsboro Planning Commission’s most recent meeting, during which members discussed alley vacation and the Highland County land bank.
• Council heard Ann Morris give a report on the Property Maintenance and Restoration Committee’s last meeting, during which members discussed veterans memorials and Colony Theatre site improvements.
• Council heard Rebecca Wilkin give a report on the Civil Service and Employee Relations Committee’s last meeting, when after “lengthy discussion,” the committee voted 2-0 to draft a resolution of disapproval for Hastings’ social media posts. Council was not asked Tuesday to weigh in on the resolution.
• Council heard first readings of a number of ordinances and resolutions, including a resolution approving a new Design Review Board appointed by Hastings, an ordinance creating two redevelopment districts in the city, and routine financial resolutions.
• Council heard a second reading on an ordinance amending the zoning map to change the zoning of 256 East Main Street to Business and Residential D.
As reported previously, council also heard the first reading of an ordinance to create a Downtown Redevelopment District in Hillsboro, and opened discussions on the possibility of joining the Paint Creek fire and EMS district as a member, rather than through the current contractual arrangement.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.