The “Special Events Ordinance”
The Owen County Commissioners Meeting was bursting with attendees on Monday evening, due to a last-minute addition by Board President Brothers to discuss the ‘special events ordinance.’ Months ago, rumors began to spread that the Commissioners planned to make sweeping changes to the rules around utilization of the courthouse for special events like the Spencer Pride Festival, which is the largest festival that utilizes courthouse facilities. While nothing was confirmed, ideas floated about the potential change including less significant changes like eliminating the use of courthouse restrooms & broad changes as an all-out ban on utilization of the courthouse property for special events.
A recently-created Facebook page that has focused its attention on eliminating the Spencer Pride Festival has made the Commissioners the main focus of their work & had been promising to petition the commissioners to complain about Spencer Pride. The group has chosen to spread three particular lies about the festival in hopes that they can stir enough public outcry to convince the Commissioners to make this change. Any attendee of the Spencer Pride Festival could have easily dispelled those falsehoods, however, as the present Owen County Commissioners are not Spencer Pride attendees, they could be more easily led astray. The Facebook group most likely wanted to prey upon the Commissioners lack of first-hand knowledge of the Spencer Pride Festival.
Two weeks ago, the special events ordinance first showed up on the formal Commissioners meeting agenda, however, during the meeting there was no discussion on the topic. When concerned representatives of Spencer Pride inquired, they were told that a draft was in process of a new ordinance but that it had not yet been finalized & there was nothing that could be shared. Other citizens were told similar stories when reaching out for information about the special events ordinance. The commissioners stated that no action would be taken for at least four weeks.
Fast forward just two weeks & the special events ordinance returned to the agenda, without any public comment planned. When Pride organizers recognized the addition of the ordinance just hours before the meeting was scheduled to begin (contrary to what had been previously communicated by the Commissioners), they began reaching out to local stakeholders from other downtown events & organizations with a vested interest in downtown events.
A Packed Commissioners Meeting
The crowd at Monday evening’s meeting of the Owen County Commissioners began showing up at 5:30 PM. By 5:45 attendees had filled every seat & individuals stood throughout the room anywhere they were permitted to do so. By 6:00 when the meeting began, the crowd had overflowed into the second-floor lobby. In total, more than 80 individuals had shown up to express their support of Spencer’s downtown festivals. The hot, crowded Commissioners room waited in eager anticipation for the meeting to begin. After the call-to-order, pledge of allegiance, & prayer, the meeting began. A couple of administrative tasks were complete in a minute or two & then the real agenda commenced. The first item was the special events ordinance.
Commissioner Brothers kicked off the topic by expressing that, although there had been no agenda item for public comment, he wanted to hear the feedback of those in attendance.
“I want public input,” Brothers said.
For almost an hour, individuals stepped forward to express their support for Spencer’s downtown events, giving Commissioner Brothers the input he had eagerly requested.
Jordan Bland started off the feedback by first asking what the Commissioners’ plans were on the matter After they provided vague & non-committal comments in response – again suggesting they put the agenda item up to solicit feedback -they ultimately revealed that they had received a petition about a ‘recent special event.” The Commissioners would not elaborate on the event or the contents of the petition.
“So is it accurate to say that because of this petition, you are taking action?” Bland inquired.
“Yes,” the Commissioners concurred.
The Commissioners were asked for what specific issues had been occurring with special events. They continued to refer to costs that taxpayers are having to cover & noted restroom facilities, security, & other costs, such as damage to trampled flower beds.
Commissioner Brothers also noted that “the Town needs to help us with these things.”
John Stantz, member of the Town Board, then spoke up.
Stantz mentioned the various businesses & organizations downtown who rely on the special events at the courthouse, including Main Street Coffee, Juniper Gallery, the Tivoli, & the Spencer Pride community center.
“It’s not my job to be judge & jury,” Stantz stated. Stantz made it clear that while the Town doesn’t interfere with the County’s business, but he made a request of the Commisioners: “I’m just asking you to leave it alone [referring to the special events ordinance already in place].”
Commissioner Burton responded by stating “It needs to be tweaked a little bit.”
Commissioner Brothers corrected his colleague: “It needs to be tweaked a lot.”
When the topic of courthouse reservation fees came up, which the current ordinance outlines, it was made clear that the Commissioners had not been aware of a fee being in place & therefore have not been asking for it or collecting it. This could have helped recuperate some of the minor costs of maintaining the courthouse facilities after events have taken place.
The Commissioners mentioned the cost of restroom services & security, however, several audience members, including Spencer Pride Director Judi Epp, pointed out that the county does not pay for the restroom attendant. Instead, the organizations using the restroom pay out of pocket for the attendant. For Spencer Pride, that’s been $225 in most recent years, to service the two restrooms for Friday evening’s setup & Saturday’s festival.
Sheriff Hobbs Spoke up in support of special events downtown at the courthouse.
“As far as security, it’s my job to provide that,” Sheriff Hobbs explained.
“I’ll make sure we work with the commissioners to provide adequate security.”
Sheriff Hobbs hadn’t been made aware of any specific concerns raised because of the special events.
Rob White from Owen County Preservations recommended that a Commission be created with various stakeholders of the County’s special events to be included. This commission would then help advise the Commissioners on how to improve the ordinance while still supporting special event growth. White, who also volunteers with Spencer Main Street, then made his position on the potential relocation of downtown events clear:
“If we lose all of the other festivals, the 8 years we’ve spent revitalizing the downtown will have been wasted.”
Melody Kinder Carpenter, who represented the Rev20 Christian Music Festival, expressed support for White’s idea for a commission. Others in the audience shook their heads in affirmation of the concept.
The Commissioners asked if anyone had a problem with events moving from the County Courthouse to the County Fairgrounds. Many people expressed that they did have an issue with it.
Jonathan Balash, president of Spencer Pride, spoke on a few topics at this time. First, he addressed the movement of events to the fairgrounds.
“We had nearly 5,000 people come out to our festival year,” Balash stated.
“We offer a festival with that ‘small town America’ feel & that’s part of why we’ve been so popular. The character of our downtown brings people in to our community for these events.”
Balash added that Spencer Pride has invested significantly in the downtown area, having purchased one of the largest buildings downtown to house the Spencer Pride commUnity center.
“This has been no small investment but we did it because of where it is – at the heart of where our festival takes place,” Balash added.
Balash clarified that Spencer Pride was supportive of any effort to recuperate costs that the Pride Festival incurs on the county. Reservation fees, electrical bills, or any other costs were specifically called out as items that Balash said Spencer Pride would happily pay for that evening if it could address any concerns that had been raised.
“We have someone here who can write the checks right now,” Balash said.
Julie Coffin, incoming President of Spencer Main Street, spoke up next. Julie explained that “the key to revitalization of every small town in the country is getting people downtown.”
Mike Sudol, local investor & member of the Spencer Main Street Board, then pointed out that all of the issues brought up thus far during the meeting also had solutions raised with them.
“We are rallying to come up with solutions,” Sudol stated. “People are gravitating to this community, a place where people can come together to celebrate. We want to be welcoming to them.”
Sudol went on: “It starts with the courthouse square. It doesn’t’ stop there, but it starts there… The county has made me feel like I belong here. To say that we are going to do things contrary to that is counterproductive. This is Spencer. We should be damn proud of it.”
Steve Withem, outgoing President of Spencer Main Street, noted that the organization was working to bring additional events downtown, including the recently announced International Ventriloquism & Arts Festival.
“We need more activities downtown,” Withem declared. “I would hope that you would embrace us, support us, & give us a pathway to make it happen.”
Jaime Sweany, owner of Juniper Gallery, was next to speak. Sweany opened the Juniper Gallery within the past year, so is a relatively new addition to the downtown businesses scene.
“I chose Spencer, I chose to invest my life savings here, because of the square, the renovations…to take any step back is upsetting to me. My business is absolutely dependent on this.”
Sweany informed the Commissioners that festivals have brought the greatest number of people to date into her building.
Sweany went on. “My business is also here because of Spencer Pride. It showed me that this is an open-minded community. I don’t think I would have come here without Spencer Pride.”
Public Comment Period Ends … Eventually
At this point, the Commissioners attempted to stop the public comment section. The crowd wasn’t ready to be finished airing their feelings on the matter, however.
Concerned citizen & Owen County Preservations Board Member Deb Jordan recommended that the Commissioners begin doing walk-throughs of the courthouse property before & after events, so that damage caused by events could be addressed by the organization coordinating them. It had already been made clear that any organization reserving courthouse facilities is required to have proof of liability insurance, although the county hasn’t sought to charge any damages back to the organizations as of this time.
Jordan Bland again spoke up. “What we haven’t mentioned is the millions of dollars that people have invested in this 9 block square: the Tivoli, Jaime [Sweany], Mike [Sudol], Spencer Pride, the clock tower. Those are huge investments that are far & beyond they money you’ve been referring to here.”
Commissioner Brothers told the crowd in attendance: “We’re not taking anything away.”
One individual who was part of the overflow crowd in the lobby then stepped forward.
“There are 30 more people who can’t even come in here because this room isn’t accommodating, she said.” We can’t hear the questions or the answers.”
President Brothers responded by saying that comments would be accepted in writing.
“But these are people who care & bothered to show up,” she went on.
John Stantz offered to step out of the room to update those who could not get inside the meeting on what had been discussed.
At that time, the special events ordinance was formally tabled by the Commissioners for future discussion.
The Conversation Continues
Outside of the conference room, a crowd gathered to continue the discussion. Local business owner Rob Babbs was quite vocal, as were representatives from several other businesses & organizations. Requests were made to create a Facebook page & e-mail list to help stay connected & “be vigilant” in watching what actions the Commissioners take on this topic. Jonathan Balash collected names & e-mail addresses. After the meeting was over & everyone went home, the official Facebook page “Coalition to Save Spencer’s Downtown Events” was formed. In the past 24 hours, more than 220 people have joined the group.
Individuals interested in keeping informed on this topic are encouraged to join the Facebook group & add their names to the e-mail list. Names can be added by sending a message to Jonathan Balash via e-mail at Jonathan@SpencerPride.org. Everyone is also encouraged to be vocal about their support of Spencer’s downtown events & to continue to engage with the Owen County Commissioners about their support.