Jeff LaBonte

With the Fourth of July just around the corner, the schedule of events for Auburn’s annual Independence Day Celebration is making the rounds.  Not long after we posted the schedule, the questions began: What happened to the parade?  What about the road race? Why isn’t it on the Fourth of July?  And so on. These are certainly valid questions.

Now, I’ll admit to my bias; I know most of the players and organizers involved with the Independence Day celebration.  I know how hard they work.  I know their only goal is to provide the community with a fun, family-friendly day.  Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing it in for these individuals aside from the satisfaction of seeing your community neighbors enjoying the holiday together. I also know firsthand that it is a bitter pill to volunteer dozens of hours of time, and then  hear complaining and criticism from people who don’t have any idea what it takes to stage this event.

I spent two years as a member of the Recreation and Culture Committee, and four years helping organize the Independence Day Celebration.  I spent three years on the Pappas Recreation Complex Oversight Committee, and the past year and a half on the Friends of the Pappas Recreation Complex.  I believe this affords me a better-than-average insight into the planning and execution of the Independence Day festivities, and how they came to be held at Pappas.

Let’s work from the easiest points back.  Some questioned why the celebration is not held on the actual Fourth of July.  Simple – logistics, cost and availability.  The larger cities have celebrations on the Fourth of July, meaning parade marchers, fireworks producers, bands, vendors, etc., are already booked.  They are also expensive.

Further, the cost of producing a fireworks display increases by about 25% on the 4th as opposed to the days surrounding the 4th.  Auburn is one of the few small towns that still launches fireworks, and it is a source of pride for many.  We would not have them at all if we had to pay the additional fee to launch them on July 4th.

Actually, at least since 2008, the celebration has never been held on the actual Fourth of July.  Contrary to what one commenter stated, this was not changed by Julie Jacobson or Kristen Pappas. Kristen did not become the Recreation and Culture Director until 2008, and Rec and Culture did not take over the Independence Day Celebration until 2009.  Julie Jacobson did not become Auburn Town Manager until January 2011.

Another misunderstanding seems to be that Julie Jacobson eliminated the 4th of July Committee. The Committee was disbanded in October 2008, two and a half years before Ms Jacobson was hired.  This was also when Town Meeting/Board of Selectmen approved transferring responsibility for 4th of July under the Department of Recreation and Culture.  Charlie O’Connor was actually Town Administrator at the time; Auburn did not yet have a Town Manager.

A big factor in the changes we have seen  in the Fourth of July festivities directly relates to a change in Massachusetts regulations.  In April 2009, Massachusetts implemented a Conflict of Interest law that, without getting into a lot of detail, forbids Town Officials (including anyone employed by Auburn or appointed to a public position) from soliciting.  In other words, no one from the Fourth of July Committee, Recreation and Culture Committee, Director of Rec and Culture, etc. could specifically ask for donations – or even discounts – for Independence Day-related expenses.

Consider that the Shriners that marched in 2009 cost about $5,000.  Fireworks cost almost $9,000, with less than half of this funded by the Town budget. The staging required for bands, DJs and performers at Lemansky cost about $1,000 at a discounted rate; closer to $2,500 full rate.  Every band runs at least $500.  You get the idea.

There is no longer any legal way for the Town to ask for donations to cover these expenses. Auburn has to rely on individuals or businesses freely offering their support, and the Selectmen must then vote to accept that donation (as has always been the case).

Next, who is supposed to run this “all-day event”?  About 95% of the manpower at Independence Day is volunteer.  Planning begins months before the event.  In the 2 weeks before the celebration, volunteers can easily spend 20 hours each on final arrangements.

It makes so, so much more sense to condense this event into 3-4 hours.  We don’t have enough volunteers to run a 12 or 14 hour event. Period.  It is patently unfair to expect a small group of 10 or 12 people, most of whom have families of their own, to spend their entire day and night making this thing work to the satisfaction of a small, vocal group. With a shortage of volunteers, this all-day approach became less and less viable.

Auburn is just not a large enough town to support ten hours of non-stop activity at an event like this.  But when you look at the numbers of people who come from all around just to watch the fireworks, it makes a lot of sense to condense the activities into a time frame leading up to the display. The reality is, once the parade finished at Lemansky, people would linger for about 2 hours, then leave.  Lemansky was a ghost town between about 3pm and 7pm, when people started to come back for fireworks.  Vendors who are paying money to rent space at the event do not like it when there are no people to buy their stuff for four hours.  Since they are the only real source of revenue the event sees, this is kind of an important thing to keep in mind.

Several hours in the evening keeps vendors busy and therefore happy and coming back.   In the evening, the weather is likely to be cooler.  There can be more going on simultaneously, instead trying to stretch out the activities all day. People can just stay for the fireworks instead of going back and forth, and dealing with parking and traffic more than once.

So we had dwindling revenue, increasing costs, fewer and fewer volunteers, and waning interest in all day activities.  Let’s talk about venue.

Logistically, Lemansky is a pain for an event like this.  The only open space has no access except the steep hill.  This all but prevents the elderly and disabled from getting to many of the events and vendors.  Parking and use has to be coordinated with the folks at Horgan (it is not a town-owned lot or facility).  Lemansky has very limited facilities and almost no access to electrical power. Even when open, Reithel is not a very good access route under the best of circumstances.

Due to fire regulations, the lower lot and the Rocketland playground had to be closed to traffic at 3pm so the pyrotechnics company could set the charges.  (As an aside, once the charges are set (usually by 4pm or so), they HAVE to be launched.  So for those years when people questioned why the fireworks were still launched after the thunderstorms came through, that is why).

callout 14-0626So now we consider moving the event to Pappas.  In my 5+ years of involvement with the development and operation of the Complex, I do not ever recall anyone in authority stating that the Pappas Complex would not be used for Fourth of July.  I went through the minutes from 2 years of Oversight Committee meetings (I was the committee secretary, so I took the notes).  I did not find a mention of not using Pappas for these events. In fact, it was discussed as a possibility very early on.

Now I may be wrong; I’ll admit that I didn’t go through every hearing, Town Meeting minute or Planning Board video looking for this info.  I don’t have an infallible memory.  It is entirely possible that someone somewhere along the line said Independence Day would not be at Pappas.  All I am saying is that I was more involved than most Auburn residents, and I don’t ever recall hearing this stated by anyone with the authority to make that decision.  Unless someone can point me to audio, video or printed minutes that state otherwise, I am inclined to stick with my recollection on this one (in other words, facts, not heresay).

Regardless, Pappas makes so much more sense for this event.  There is a performance area saving thousands in staging. There are lights (playing lights and streetlights).  There is parking both at Pakachoag Church and the Complex itself.  The church building itself is available for indoor needs.  There are staging areas that do not require closing half the complex in order to prepare the fireworks display.  Proximity to satellite parking is about the same as it would be at Lemansky, assuming Reithel/Vine are accessible.  After 3pm, this is not so and shuttles would need to go around to Oxford St. anyway.  If there is ever going to be a revival of the parade, the Pakachoag route is easier to manage than the Bryn Mawr to Oxford St. route.  This list goes on and on.

I get it.  It is change.  It is different. Some changes are out of necessity.  Other changes are made in the interest of the greater good.  Sure, it’s hard for someone living on Bryn Mawr, who has watched a parade march by for 50+ years, to let that go.  But the parade, well, it had seen better days.  I don’t criticize the parade organizers because it is a massive effort.  It is expensive.  And when you have no money and no manpower, what are the alternatives?   Would people rather that Auburn keep the parade, and cancel the fireworks? I doubt it.

The new location is better.  It is more modern with better access and better facilities.  It is handicap accessible.  The town made it work at Lemansky.  It was cool at the old high school.  But those places aren’t the best options anymore.  Pappas is not perfect.  No place is perfect.  But Pappas is the best option for this event at this point in time.

My suggestion is go down and enjoy Thursday night.  It is bound to be fun.  There will be some good food, good music, and fun games.  The fireworks are always terrific.  Keep your fingers crossed the weather holds.  If you like what you experience, consider getting involved so we can continue this event for future generations.  If you don’t like what you see, get involved and give your input, time and effort.  If you don’t like those options, you could go to Oxford’s celebration. Oh, wait.  They don’t have one.  Okay, then head down to Millbury then – it’s just $21 a person.

My point is, we have a great tradition going here, with a lot of people who work very hard to make it happen for all of the rest of us.  There is a lot – a LOT – that goes on behind the scenes affecting nearly every aspect of an event this size, and most of these details are never known by those who aren’t involved in the planning.  Most towns have nothing even close to it.  Appreciate it.  Thank the folks who make it happen.  And have a good time.