Organizers propose two-day Pumpkin Festival


LACONIA — Organizers of the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival found out on Saturday what would happen if there was rain during festival day. The weather – cool, sometimes windy, and downright torrential for one period – resulted in lower turnout than the first year that it was held in Laconia, but it was still a day that attracted thousands of people to downtown, and resulted in a banner day for many downtown businesses.

In fact, the outcome despite the rain was so positive that Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, is considering expanding the festival to include two days next year.

She said the festival drew an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, and that the total number of pumpkins numbered less than 6,000 – far fewer than the 30,562 needed to set a Guinness World Record. Considering that the weather was nearly as bad as could be imagined, Gifford was encouraged by this year's festival, which was the second year that the event was held in Laconia, and the first year that it was organized by the Chamber of Commerce.

While there was a period of soaking rain, Gifford said festival-goers seemed to find shelter during the downpour.

"Our downtown has a great vibrancy," she said, describing how people seemed to "disappear" during the rain, only to reappear when it ceased. "People went inside, they hunkered down, and they came back with pumpkins. The rain didn't stop people."

The haunted house inside the Belknap Mill – "Mayhem at the Mill" – was again a popular event, as was the scenic train ride, and Gifford received positive feedback about new additions to the festival, such as the two beer tents and the nearby live entertainment.

While parking was temporarily banned on many city streets for last year's festival, the city's police decided not to do so this year, and the vast majority of festival attendees elected to find a parking spot in one of the neighborhoods near downtown instead of paying to use a remote lot and shuttle service.

Looking forward to next year, Gifford wants to add more activities, especially amusement rides, and more opportunities for interactive experiences at the festival. Lengthening the festival to two days, she thinks, would make a trip to Laconia more attractive to vendors and others who would offer such experiences. And, it will give local businesses another day to capitalize on the crowds that come for the festival.

At Wayfarer Coffee Roasters, worker Kelly Carter said the coffee shop was "very busy – busy throughout the day" during the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival. She liked the idea of expanding the event to two days.

"I don't see why not," she said. "I think it's great for all the local businesses, a good boost to the economy. I think it would be a great idea."

Asia Bixby worked at Burrito Me during the festival, and she also reported a busy day, both for the eatery and for the several other businesses that set up tents in the burrito shop's parking lot. However, she isn't in support of lengthening the event.

"I like that it's just the one day. I think it might get crazy if it goes to two days. As long as the rain holds off, I think it's good as one day," she said, adding that she thinks the festival organizers are doing a "good job" with the event.

Charlie St. Clair, owner of the Laconia Antique Center, said his shop had its best sales day of the year, and that the day prior and after the festival, Friday and Saturday, were also above average for this time of year. Even so, he did not support an expansion to two days.

"I think one day works fine. I don't know how the logistics would work," he said, adding that he is concerned about leaving thousands of jack-o'-lanterns on the city streets overnight. "The thing with pumpkins is ... things can happen."

Laconia Mayor Ed Engler is willing to consider the proposal but has concerns about how the expansion would work. The city does close Lakeside Avenue during Motorcycle Week, he noted, but that road closure doesn't affect people outside of Weirs Beach. Main Street, on the other hand, is a major thoroughfare through the city, as well as a state highway.

"I think the biggest issue would be the closure of streets," said Engler. "That would have to be vetted."

Gifford will be meeting with the chamber's board of directors soon to pick a date for 2017 and to discuss spreading the festival over two days.

"By the end of this week, we'll have an announcement of a date, and I'll know what to request from the city," she said.


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Second rape trial for former deputy delayed


LACONIA — A second criminal trial for a former Belknap County Deputy Sheriff convicted of raping a female inmate while taking her from the courthouse to state prison is likely stalled until at least next summer.
Ernest "Justin" Blanchette, 36, formerly of Franklin, is now serving a 10- to 20-year prison sentence.
Nine other counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault alleging similar conduct with other inmates he was tasked with transporting, remain pending in Belknap County Superior Court.
During a Monday morning hearing to discuss the status of those charges, defense attorney Brad Davis, who appealed the conviction to the New Hampshire Supreme Court this summer, said he must submit his brief by Nov. 7. The Attorney General's Office has until Jan. 6 to file its response. Oral arguments before the justices will then be scheduled.
"I'm concerned about the length of the delay from the victims' perspective," Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen told the judge.
The prosecutor said the high court may not issue an opinion in the case until next summer.
Judge James D. O'Neill III cited his May order in the case in which he ruled that if an appeal was filed, the high court's opinion would settle the defense motion seeking to dismiss the Belknap charges.
In his notice of appeal, Davis challenged the decision by the judge who presiding over Blanchette's trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court. Judge Gilliam Abramson held that Blanchette was "employed" by the New Hampshire State Prison for Women to carry out the task of transport, and that he had direct supervisory and disciplinary authority over the victim by virtue of her status as an inmate.
Davis asserts that state law clearly applies to "correctional officers," only and that Blanchette was a deputy sheriff. The core element of the appeal is whether Judge Abramson's ruling amounts to "reversible error" – a legal mistake at the trial court level which is so significant that without it, the outcome may have been different and is grounds for the appellate court to reserve the conviction.
Judge O'Neill ordered that another status conference be scheduled within 90 days and that the case be returned to the docket to be scheduled for trial at that time.
In July, a woman who claims she was among the inmates victimized by Blanchette, filed a civil suit naming both the disgraced deputy and Belknap County as defendants.
Using the name Jane Doe to shield her identity, the woman charges that the county was negligent in supervising Blanchette and makes claims for intentional infliction of emotion distress against both defendants. She claimed her rights were violated because Blanchette raped her while he was on duty, "acting under the color of law."

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Judge rules against telling jury of earlier alleged sex assaults in rape case


LACONIA — The jury hearing evidence in the sexual assault trial of a Belmont man won't get to hear testimony that the complaining witness allegedly told others about the abuse before she was arrested for stealing from the defendant.
Judge James D. O'Neill III ruled from the bench on Monday to uphold his earlier decision that such testimony amounts to hearsay and can not be substantiated, making it inadmissible.
The prosecutor argued such testimony would clearly rebut the defense's theory that the woman had a motive to lie to dodge being imprisoned for stealing jewelry and coins from Steven Price.
Price, 66, is charged with knowingly committing a pattern of sexual assault against the alleged victim between June 14, 1996, and June 13, 2000, over a period of more than two months, but less than five years when she was older than 13 but younger than 16.
Assistant Strafford County Attorney Alysia Cassotis, who is prosecuting the case, said the testimony should be allowed because the crux of the defense "is an absolute reliance on a motive to lie."
Allowing the jury to hear from witnesses who would testify that the alleged victim told them about engaging in sex with Price when she was still a minor, would also explain the reason for the delay in her disclosure.
The prosecutor maintained that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has recognized why victims of sexual assault put off telling anyone they have been abused. In this case, the woman testified that she loved the defendant and that he had also been caring for her son.
In asking the judge to rethink his earlier ruling barring the admission of such testimony, the prosecutor said that the alleged victim's best friend would testify at about age 15 she disclosed that she and Price had been having sex for the past several years.
Based on the defense's theory that the woman invented the accusations to avoid being prosecuted for felony theft, the testimony is necessary to allow the jury to fully access why the alleged disclosures were so late, Cassotis said.
Defense attorney Jim Moir urged the judge to uphold his earlier ruling, arguing the state's request was being made too late as the alleged victim had already testified. The statements the prosecutor wanted to introduce were made out of court, Moir asserted, and as such are hearsay and not admissible.
The prosecutor argued that to rebut the impression created by the defense that the complaining witnesses' testimony was a recent fabrication, evidence that she told the same story before should be admissible, as a prior consistent statement is not hearsay.
The state is predicting that it could wrap up its case tomorrow.

10-25 Steve Price

Steven Price, 66, of Belmont, is on trial in Belknap County Superior Court, charged with having a sexual relationship with a minor girl. (Bea Lewis/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

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