By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
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.