LACONIA — The New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival, held on Saturday in Laconia for the first time, drew thousands of people into downtown, producing what Carla Peterson of Hector's Fine Food and Spirits said was ''a truly amazing event, the biggest event downtown has ever seen.''
Peterson said that Hector's, which had outdoor seating and a bar set up under a tent, had its best day ever and was busy from 10 a.m. until 10 at night with a line which extended outside with a waiting time for diners of between and hour and 90 minutes.
''People were courteous and understanding and our staff did an outstanding job. I certainly look forward to next year's festival.''
Karmen Gifford, executive director of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, described the festival as "an economic boost for local businesses as well as vendors." She said that vendors sold out of product and many asked to place a deposit to reserve a spot at next year's festival. Non-profit groups also said they intended to return. And many offered to volunteer for future festivals.
She said that waits at all downtown restaurants stretched to an hour-and-half. Downtown retailers, some of whom offered specials, also enjoyed strong sales.
"The parade was a great success, especially for the children," Gifford said. "The costumes were elaborate." She said that buskers playing for tips, including some who had performed in Keene in the past, drew steady crowds at spots around town.
Gifford said that Ruth Sterling, who managed the event for Let IT Shine, Inc., expects to announce the date of 2016 festival by the end of this week.
"You couldn't help but be impressed with the obvious pride Laconia residents took in their festival," said Mayor Ed Engler. "That was the most important thing to me. You could see it in their faces and many expressed their pride directly to me."
He said "this was a genuine family oriented event. I wish we had a count of the number of baby strollers."
The mayor said that "obviously there are a lot of people who contributed to the success of this event." He highlighted the role of Charlie St. Clair, who when city officials in Keene questioned continuing to host the festival, seized an opportunity to bring the event to Laconia. "It wouldn't have happened without Charlie," he said.
He also said that Gifford was "the nerve center of the whole thing."
"I can't imagine there is anyone who wouldn't want the city to continue hosting this event," he said.
Downtown restaurant owners are enthused about the prospect of the festival becoming a yearly event.
Kevin Halligan, owner of the Local Eatery in Veterans Square, said that Saturday was the biggest day in the history of the restaurant .
''We were super busy all day and all night. We sold over 600 pounds of meat and while we had all hands on deck there were times I wished that we had two or thee more people working. There are some things I look forward to tweaking next year.''
The line at the Holy Grail of the Lakes across the street also extended out into Veterans Square and waiting times there were also in the 90 minute range.
Isaac Tyler at Burrito Me said that the restaurant doubled its previous record for one-day sales with over 400 burritos sold, as well as salads and side dishes. ''It was just an incredible day for local business. We were busy from 12:30 p.m. until 8:30 at night,'' said Tyler.
It was the same story at Wayfarer Coffee Roasters, which sold 250 hot chocolates and a week and a half worth of its milk supply was used Saturday according to Karen Bassett,. ''It was awesome. We were busy from 10 a.m. right up until 8:30 p.m.''
The Finer Diner in the Laconia Antique Center also enjoyed its best day ever according to Charlie St. Clair, owner of the center, who said that it was also he busiest day ever for the center.
''We had between 3,000 and 4,000 customers and were filled all 12 hours that we were open. One of the best things is the exposure we got and the repeat customers that will bring,'' said St. Clair, who said that customers from Dover were back in the store on Monday and that a mother and daughter from Gorham, who had never before been to Laconia, plan on coming back and staying over next weekend. He said that it was impressive to see people from as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York show up specifically for the pumpkin festival.
He praised the organizational work done by Gifford and Ruth Sterling and the support for bringing the festival to Laconia from Mayor Engler.
Amanda Bullerwell, who was in charge of the pumpkin count, which tallied 9,567 lit jack-o-lanterns, said that response to the festival was overwhelmingly positive from everyone she has spoken to.
''People are telling me they never saw as many people downtown with lines out the door at all of the restaurants and people, especially families, really enjoying themselves,'' she said.
Bullerwell said it was amazing to see all of the volunteers who stepped up to help out and noted that within an hour after the festival closed all of the jack-o-lanterns had been picked up. ''Everybody pulled together and made it a wonderful day for the city of Laconia.''
Captain Matt Canfield of the Police Department, who designed the operational plan for the festival, said that everything — the traffic flow and the parking arrangements — "went very smoothly. We towed only one vehicle and made only one arrest." He said 25 officers were deployed, including four on bicycles and a number on foot, directing traffic and monitoring parking. He said that shuttle bus service worked well with officers managing the drop-off points. "There was minimal congestion and even after the event the traffic moved steadily," he said. Canfield said that no significant problems arose and no major changes in planning would be required next year.
"I've never seen an event of this size that was so positive," Canfield remarked.
Ann Saltmarsh of the Department of Public Works said that crews worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. keeping the city streets clean and trash can emptied during the festival. "The guys worked hard and did a terrific job throughout the day," she said. At the same time, Casella Waste Systems, managed 22 30 cubic yard bins, 16 filled with pumpkins and six with trash and them all out of downtown by 11:15 p.m. "They worked with military precision," Saltmarsh remarked.
Casella delivered pumpkins to Petal Pushers on Monday where Patty Giannunzio said they would provide a feast for the 20 pigs she keeps as well as the wild animals in the woods around the property.
Saltmarsh singled out Lucas Lamos and Steve St. Pierre of DPW who carved and decorated the jeweled pumpkin — six feet across and five feet high — that crowned the tower.
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