With the new location of Morgan Hill’s beloved annual July 3 Street Dance finalized, downtown merchants are up in arms about the likely resulting decline in sales, residents decry the usurpation of a “tradition,” and some are upset that the event organizers seem unwilling to work with those who enjoy the festivities and would help reduce the problems that have grown with the annual street party.
Organizers of Morgan Hill’s annual Independence Day Freedom Fest fireworks, parade and related festivities started talking about moving one of the holiday’s favorite events – the July 3 Street Dance – to another venue and renaming it months ago. But when the new location – the city’s Community and Cultural Center – became official in recent weeks it whipped downtown merchants and residents into a frenzy.
The merchants, represented by the Morgan Hill Downtown Association, scrambled in an effort to reverse the change by helping to circulate a petition and spreading the word to supporters of the longtime street venue.
Teri Schindler, owner of the Raggedy Heart gift shop, decried the IDC’s decision to make the move as merchants “struggle” and the organization’s failure to communicate with downtown tenants and owners.
“It’s one more thing to deter downtown from succeeding,” Schindler said. “We weren’t even in on the discussion. It’s frustrating. We love what we do in Morgan Hill and we want to stay, but this is just one more piece of the rug pulled out from under us.”
She added that if the IDC had asked them, the merchants could have offered ideas and help to pull off the event and reduce expected problems. The petition being circulated, she said, shows that moving the street dance to the community center is “not favored by the people who make the town.”
Some business owners reported filling several pages of the petition with signatures, though a final tally of signers couldn’t be cited by press time.
There’s no doubt they have vocalized the issue, but the new venue for the newly dubbed “Family Music Fest” will be the new host of this year’s July 3 concert.
The best the IDC and MHDA can do is start talking now about the possibility of bringing the event back to the streets next year, and perhaps even place the merchants in charge, according to IDC president Charles Weston. He plans to meet with representatives of the merchants in the coming days in order to begin that discussion.
For the past 15 years the July 3 Street Dance has taken place on Monterey Road, between Second and Third streets, with the entire street from Dunne to Main avenues closed down for the public party.
The IDC wanted to move it this year because it has grown too large and rowdy, with alcohol consumption seemingly on the rise each year, and the expense and effort of cleaning up the mess in time for the next morning’s parade – which takes place on the same streets – becoming an increasing burden for the limited staff of IDC volunteers.
If those opposed to the change of venue could see the behind-the-scenes cleanup of vomit, beer cans, urine and other work associated with the street dance, they would likely support it, Weston suggested.
“We felt like it wasn’t representing the nature of what we’re trying to celebrate, which is freedom,” Weston said. “Maybe it’s becoming more of a drunk-fest. We wanted to kind of reel it back a little bit. It wasn’t intended to slam on the merchants who happen to make a profit mostly selling alcohol. The problem was we didn’t see it as what the Freedom Fest committee was trying to portray.”
The IDC member in charge of the July 3 event for the last 15 years, Dennis Dal Poggetto, declined to comment on this year’s change of venue to the Times. But he wrote on the Freedom Fest’s Facebook page, in reply to criticism posted by another resident, that the street dance “needs a revamping, a look at safety, volunteer participation, downtown input, finances, sponsorship.”
He added that Independence Day is “not about commercialism.”
“Over the last 3-4 years the event has taken on a different look, something we all enjoy but not quite in the spirit of our men & women who have served this country and paid the ultimate price for our freedom,” Dal Poggetto’s Facebook comment says.
But merchants at an MHDA board meeting Wednesday said each of the cited problems can be minimized. The communication that the IDC did offer, they added, was vague and evasive, with the reasons for the change constantly changing themselves.
“Every time we offer (ways to) mitigate an issue, they come up with another issue,” said BookSmart owner Brad Jones.
The Candy Parlour owner Chris Reynolds said he received a letter from the IDC in January, one side of which referred to the “July 3 Street Dance,” with the schedule on the reverse side listing a “Freedom Concert” in that time slot instead. The letter did not refer to a change of venues.
Other reasons given for the change include expenses associated with hiring professional cleaners to mop up the mess, revelers loitering long after the event ended at 11 p.m., and the logistics of attempting to control the sprawling crowd.
The merchants suggested possible solutions to all of these problems at Wednesday’s meeting: Raise the price of beer sold at IDC’s beverage tents; hire local, less expensive contractors to clean the streets; enlist downtown volunteers who have already offered to help the clean the streets.
Several times the merchants suggested the root of the issue is the IDC’s insular, self-protective mindset.
“The three or four people (in charge of the street dance) want to be autonomous, and now they got burned out,” Schindler said.
But Weston suggested the IDC has learned from the recent dust-up that they need to train new volunteers for future Independence Day celebrations, and perhaps even enlist groups of volunteers or other organizations – such as the MHDA – to take charge of certain parts of the celebration.
Organizers added the Freedom Fest committee is an all-volunteer entity that relies significantly on donations from the community and sponsors for financial feasibility. They spend the entire 12 months preceding the annual holiday preparing for the next one, and next year’s soiree is also funded by entry fees for the bike classic, parade entries, and other events.
The cost to conduct the festivities is about $140,000, Weston said.
“And we do it all for free,” Weston said.
Morgan Hill resident Bob Matts, 47, said he was so furious when he learned the street dance was moving that he decided not to donate cash to the IDC as he has in previous years. A 19-year resident, he has attended the street dance, fireworks and parade almost every year.
He won’t attend this summer’s July 3 concert at the community center, he said.
“There’s no way they’re going to fit everybody at the community center. Last year it was packed” downtown, he said. “It’s going to kill the Fourth of July spirit.”
Morgan Hill resident and M & H Tavern bar tender Bob Allman, 55, said the downtown venue, where the “hallowed ground” of the First Street veterans memorial is found, is a “tradition.”
Tavern owner Susan Hall has said in recent weeks that July 3 and 4 are among the bar’s busiest days of the year, and she thought moving the concert venue would cripple other downtown merchants who also see higher sales on those days.
Downtown restaurateur Art Nazzal, owner of Mr. Falafel, said July 3 last year was “one of my biggest events.” He thinks the city and those involved in promoting the city should be more active in promoting the downtown and ensuring it is an active, thriving place.
“Morgan Hill is a family environment. When one person falls, everybody in Morgan Hill is there to pick them up. But it seems like nobody is here to support the downtown,” Nazzal said. “There’s a lot of different things that Morgan Hill should be doing to make the downtown better, but they keep taking things away.”