LACONIA — On Saturday, Oct. 24 the City on the Lakes will be aglow with the flames of thousands of jack-o-lanterns when Laconia plays host to New Hampshire's 25th Annual Pumpkin Festival.
Ruth Sterling of Sterling Design & Communications, who heads the management team for the event, made the announcement yesterday before a gaggle of print and electronic media in the rotunda of the Railroad Station at Veterans Square.
On Wednesday the directors of Let It Shine, Inc., the nonprofit corporation that has produced the event in Keene since 2011, voted to move the festival to Laconia. At the same time, the organization announced its intent to coordinate with towns hosting their festivals on October 17 to "(preserve) refrigerate and deliver their pumpkins to Laconia as part of a statewide effort to rise above and heal."
Sterling also announced that Zippo, makers of the lighters that light the 30,000 plus pumpkins, has committed to continue as the presenting sponsor of the festival. She said that the arrangement with Laconia is for 2015. "We'll see what happens and take one year at a time," she added.
Let It Shine reached its decision 20 days after the Keene City Council voted 13 to 1 to deny it a license to stage the event in the city where it has been held every year since 1991. City officials chose to suspend the festival after rioting on the campus of Keene State College coincided with the festival last October, raising concerns about the cost of ensuring public safety at future events.
Recalling that the event has set world records, won a cash prize, been named best specialty food event and inspired Newtown, Connecticut to seek solace with a similar festival, Sterling asked "if someone told you it was over, what would you do?" She answered "we'd hope for a miracle" and declared "that's just what happened." She explained that Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, determined that "not on my watch" would the festival be lost.
As the Keene City Council debated the future of the festival, St. Clair spoke on its behalf, drawing on his experience with Motorcycle Week to assure officials that the event could be held without risking the safety of the public. When the council decided otherwise, St. Clair, together with Karmen Gifford, executive director of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, and Amy Landers of the Lakes Region Tourism Association, offered Laconia as a venue for the festival.
Meanwhile, more than 15 cities and towns, including Nashua, Portsmouth and Claremont, also expressed interest in hosting the event. But, after spending a day in Laconia a week ago, Sterling announced "right now, thanks to Charlie St. Clair, all roads lead to Laconia," a remark confirmed by her announcement yesterday.
Mayor Ed Engler, who was accompanied by four of the six city councilors — David Bownes (Ward 2), Brenda Baer (Ward 4), Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) — and had spoken with councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1) and Henry Lipman (Ward 3) , said that the council unanimously and enthusiastically endorsed and supported the festival. He noted that when children ask for things, parents often reply "we'll see," but insisted "our attitude in Laconia is not 'we'll see' but 'will do.'"
Gifford said that the chamber of commerce will hold the special events permit for the festival. The chamber serves members in 18 municipalities in the region and she expects to engage businesses and nonprofit organizations in setting the agenda for the festival. "We want to carve out opportunities for all our local businesses and nonprofits," she said.
"Our first goals," said Sterling, "are a spectacular, safe, family-friendly event bringing scores of visitors to enjoy the Laconia downtown and surroundings."