By Peter Becker
The proposed food and wine festival promoter Jon Henderson is requesting to have in Bingham Park next June is described as an "elegant" social affair. Highlighting the fine culinary talents of local restaurants and blended with roving musicians, Henderson told Hawley Council Nov. 28th that it would be excellent for tourism and the local economy. He said he hopes this would build on its reputation into an annual event, a high point of the year in his hometown.
Most hard to swallow for some, however, is the fact that alcohol would be included, no matter how limited and to what extent consumption and behavior is controlled. Once again, concerns were stressed by some Council members that no matter what precautions are taken, something could go wrong.
That "something" could lead to trouble for the borough, detractors warned, concerned over the fear of lawsuits, as well as Council's approval setting a precedent that would be hard to stop.
The workshop took an hour and a half. Borough solicitor Robert Bernathy asked Henderson for a copy of the insurance policy Henderson states would cover the borough. Before Council brings the matter to a vote, the ordinance restricting alcohol in public parks, dated Feb. 8, 1989, would have to be amended to provide further restrictions Council may wish to add.
Henderson wants to have the festival over the weekend of June 8-9, 2013. Bernathy said that the time it takes to create an amendment may mean the vote would not be until the February meeting. The promoter said he can still put the festival together in that time frame but would prefer six months.
He further asked if Council could give "conditional approval" at the December meeting pending the amendment. Bernathy said it may be on their December agenda if he gets the information he needs in time. The solicitor also wants to research other small towns where alcohol events have been held in public parks.
Henderson represents Good Time Tricycle Productions, which he said has been creating and executing high quality festivals for 12 years, with the goal to drive tourism. The hope is that visitors will discover Hawley and come back to explore the many amenities the region has to offer. Although Hawley is the smallest venue he has ever attempted, and the first in Pennsylvania, he cites success with food and wine events in Atlantic City and Chicago. Another event is planned in July in North Carolina.
Henderson graduated from Wallenpaupack Area High School and was raised on Wangum Avenue.
Handing out a colorful package of material about the proposed festival, Henderson stated that an estimated 3,000 people may attend. The festival would be limited to the are between the two softball diamonds on the north end- the old canal basin- and sectioned off with snow fence. Tents would be put up for people to make the rounds of sampling fine foods as well as alcohol.
In addition to wine, beer and cider would be sampled, he said, but no "hard liquor."
There would be roving musicians such as a barbershop quartet. The area requested would be 250 by 300 feet.
A kick-off party is proposed for Friday evening at a location to be announced. "Celebrity chefs and culinary personalities" would visit the kitchens of some of the finer restaurants of the Lake Region, on Saturday evening and for Sunday brunch. They would commandeer the kitchens and staff to create a unique and festive dining experience.
On both Saturday and Sunday there would be three sessions of tastings. Cooking demonstrations are planned at each session. Twenty restaurants and 30 vendors are expected to participate.
The cost of the event, Henderson estimated, would be $145,000. He assured there would be no cost to the Borough. Third party companies would help sponsor the event. He estimates that the profit will be $115,000. Part of the proceeds would benefit charitable causes.
Henderson added that their festivals leave the site in the same or better condition as they found it. They would provide their own electrical service. The event would be held rain or shine.
As much as possible, they would use local restaurants and vendors, he stated. Breweries and wineries within a 50 mile radius would be utilized. Fine restaurants, diners and bagel shops would all be welcome, he said. "No one would be excluded."
The festival would be kept away from the skate park. Access to the playground would have to be maintained.
Parking is a concern. Council Vice-president Mary Sanders noted that downtown merchants complain about other big events, which take away parking spaces. Henderson stated that a shuttle service would be provided, from parking areas such at the Wallenpaupack schools. Council member Elaine Herzog noted that shuttling people worked well a few years ago, when the Moving Vietnam Wall was set up in the park.
Traffic could be a "catastrophe," said Council President Don Kyzer. The Main Avenue bridge over the Lackawaxen, next to the park, may be down to one lane in June as PennDOT undertakes a project to replace the span.
Henderson said he could be flexible with the dates. June 8th is also the same time as the craft show hosted by the Pocono Lake Region Chamber of Commerce. The fair, however, takes the upper field, and Henderson suggested that having two events could help each other and give more reason to come to town.
Samples of alcoholic beverage would be limited to 1-1/2 to 2 ounces. Henderson said that tickets would be sold, one for each tasting. The maximum they could use would amount to the equivalent of one bottle of beer, he said.
To help ensure nothing gets out of hand, security personnel and local police would patrol the area and ensure compliance with alcohol beverage laws.
Gate staff would not permit anyone entry who appears to be intoxicated and containers of alcohol would not be allowed to be carried in.
Apparently intoxicated persons would be detained by security and the law enforcement command post notified.
Working with a hotel, a designated driver program would be established to drive people requiring it.
Knocking on the wooden Council room table, Henderson said there have been "very few" incidents in their 12 years concerning alcohol problems, with no DUIs and no lawsuits.
Reassurances by Henderson did not seem to satisfy those concerned with potential problems.
"I'm philosophically against the alcohol," said Vice-president Sanders. Stating she would have no issue if it was held in a private venue, she cautioned that allowing this festival will open the door to others.
Questioned about "open container" laws, Henderson stated that state liquor laws have different guidelines for tasting events. he said they they can sell bottled goods, but the customer is not allowed to open the container there.
Council President Kyzer lamented that the event is "taking the park away from the kids." He recalled when he used to coach Little League at the park, they would be "shoveling" broken beer bottles to clean up the area.
Kyzer asked if the festival could be moved to the Wallenpaupack school parking lot. Henderson replied that they want to use Bingham Park for the aesthetics.They also would not care to take the alcohol tasting to local establishments such as Settler's because it would break the flow. Henderson stated that they use a "proven concept" which works very well. As people go from station to station sampling food and alcohol, he said it limits their alcohol consumption.
Sanders stressed, however, that the borough would be giving the wrong impression to allow alcohol in a public park.
"You're sending a message, when we have so much alcohol and drugs in our community," Sanders said.
To this, Henderson replied, "The message is 'celebration.'"
Council member Michelle Rojas urged the promoter to move the alcohol tastings to existing establishments. She reminded, "We're a small borough- there's a lot of liability- if anything went wrong..."
She asked Henderson to "tweak the concept" for a small town.
He rejoined that changing the concept affects the overall experience. "People like to rove," he said. "The model we built works. We have the controls. There is not drunken craziness..."
Rojas answered, " You can have problems at elegant events too."
The 1989 ordinance
Hawley Council unnanimously passed an ordinance on Feb. 8, 1989 prohibiting open contaners of alcoholic beverages in public parks, streets and municipal parking lots. An exception was given for groups or organizations desiring to dispense alcoholic beverage, to first receive Council's approval.
News Eagle records briefly noted from the Dec. 16, 1988 Council meeting that the ordinance provides for such activities as Hawley Fest and softball games "where beer or the like are dispensed."
Councilman Joe Faubel ssuggested that the 1989 ordinance was passed because alcohol use was getting out of hand. Henderson, however, assures they will have controls in place, Faubel said. He added there is a "sharp distinction between beer at a softball game out of a cooler and a tasting event."
Sanders replied that she does not make a distinction whether it is beer or wine. People can still get drunk, regardless of the social level, she said.
Henderson said that stopping the alcohol would punish others who want it.
Nancy Morales, Borough Assistant Administrator, suggested that Council could set a 2-ounce limit at future events requesting alcohol. "No kegger will want an ounce of beer," she added.
Despite the limit on festival sampling tickets, Sanders added that someone could still give their unused tickets to a friend.
Solicitor Bernathy emphasized the real possibility of a lawsuit if something went wrong. If someone had a DUI after leaving the event and there was serious injury, he assured that the borough would be named, and the borough cannot afford to be sued.
Henderson stated that his company has insurance to cover the borough.
Bernathy advised Council that the 1989 ordinance would have to be amended to provide specific criteria in place of just giving an applicant group permission to go ahead. Lawsuits are a lot more common today than in 1989, he said.