BELFAST — A recent announcement from Our Town Belfast saying the organization will no longer participate in Belfast’s Annual Street Party has left some in the community concerned, others disappointed.
The announcement, authored by Executive Director Zach Schmesser, was first shared by Our Town Belfast on its social media page April 8, and reads:
“Over the past few months, the Our Town Belfast Promotions Committee has been working closely with restauranteurs and downtown business owners to strategize new ways to attract people to the downtown. Part of this process has required Our Town Belfast to take a hard look at events and programs that have long been part of our calendar.
“After many thoughtful conversations and careful consideration, Our Town Belfast has decided that we will be stepping away from the summer street party in 2019. This doesn’t mean that the street party won’t take place. There are parties who have expressed interest in continuing the street party. Be on the lookout for further details.
“Over the next few months, Our Town Belfast will finalize the details of a new event set to launch in the fall of 2019. The goal of this event is to introduce a low cost, family friendly event to our community when our Main Street is a little quieter and our downtown businesses and our community can truly participate. Despite our love for and support of the summer street party, after a decade, we realized that we want to work on other projects. In staying true to our mission to keep downtown Belfast flourishing and vibrant and with the support of several downtown businesses and our committed volunteers, we look forward to our next chapter. More details will be forthcoming as they are available. With thanks for your continued support in this new endeavor.”
According to their site, OTB “is a community-driven and nationally accredited Main Street Organization whose mission is to grow and sustain our historic downtown while celebrating our unique cultural heritage.”
The organization works to support local businesses, honoring Belfast’s heritage, through historic preservation, and in bringing together the community in order to make downtown Belfast a better place to live, work and play.
The organization's decision to no longer participate in the street party was questioned by Mike Hurley, Belfast Ward 4 councilor.
He explained further in a phone conversation, that he had several discussions with OTB where he lobbied for them to continue their 10-year tradition of hosting the street party, if only for another year.
“I disagree with it,” Hurley said, of the organization’s decision. “I disagreed with them privately, numerous times, and I urged them not to do that because I think it’s maybe the most popular event in Belfast that sort of addresses a wide demographic and with a big emphasis on children. I made a proposal to them to continue it with support from the city; they didn’t do that.”
Our Town Executive Director Schmesser said, over the phone, that the group has been considering no longer hosting the annual Street Party since the event took place last year, though it was not something known in the community at large.
“There was no formal… we didn’t say, ‘hey, who would like to come have a conversation about this, but we’ve had a number of conversations with business owners and people who have participated all along, throughout the entire process,” Schmesser said.
According to Schmesser, Hurley became aware they were no longer interested in continuing the event several months ago.
In a written proposal to OTB made by Hurley March 20, he lobbied for OTB to remain involved for this year, with the phrase included and underlined three times in the one and a half page document.
Multiple concerns about the potential to withdraw or move the date or location of the event were outlined in the proposal, with four out of five having to do with who is in the area and free to attend. Attendees historically include children out of school for the summer, college students home for summer, summer tourists, and those with summer homes.
The last concern written in Hurley’s proposal is that the Annual Street Party, “is the single (and until recently the ‘signature OTB event’) inclusive [emphasis Hurley’s] event of the year that people of all demographics in the Belfast area attended, enjoyed, looked forward to, and support with strong attendance.”
The proposal made by Hurley included that, “the Belfast Street Party will continue this year [emphasis Hurley’s] in a slightly reduced carbon footprint without Church Street, at the same dates, times, and location.
“The party will have an increase in children related activities and events with support from Kids Unplugged and The Game Loft among others.
“We will form a new committee to organize the event with Street Party supporters from OTB and the community. We have reached out and have participation support from The Game Loft, The Belfast Creative Coalition, The Belfast Lions Club, Kids Unplugged, and others.”
Schmesser took issue with Hurley’s assertions in his proposal that he had already gained support from some of the community organizations named in the proposal.
He said that following Hurley’s March 20 proposal, the organization’s board did “additional research” and the information [in the proposal] was “not fully substantiated.”
In follow-up conversations, several of those mentioned organizations have not fully committed to participating in the event.
The Game Loft’s Youth Board is to meet with Hurley potentially on April 12, before a decision is reached.
The Belfast Creative Coalition, replying to questions asked via Facebook, said won’t be participating in the event this year, instead will “focus on the arts” and a large event being planned for November. Despite that, the coalition added it will work in support of whatever group produces the Street Party.”
Belfast Lions First Vice President Ryan Harnden said that the club has discussed the Street Party and continuing their involvement, but doesn’t know enough about what that involvement would entail to make a decision one way or another.
“We obviously would really, really like to continue – we love the event. It’s something I really like, and personally, I like it and our Club I think enjoys doing it, too. It’s a one-night thing, we park our wagon and it’s quite fun, but we don’t know what the new vision is. We have some idea, but it’s all just kind of conjecture so it’s hard for me to say that our club is going to say yes or no without completely understanding what the demand is on us,” Harnden said, adding that the Lions Club is entirely volunteer-based and has to be sure not to spread its members too thin.
While there is uncertainty among others, one organization is firmly on board with this year’s Street Party.
Brittany Tarbox, of Kids Unplugged, said that the group will “definitely be involved” in this year's Street Party, and may play a larger role in the event this year.
Though Hurley said he found OTB’s decision to no longer host the Street Party disappointing, he offered reassurances that the Annual Street Party will take place as planned in August.
“It is going to happen,” he said. “I’ve got people who are willing to help and the city is willing to help and we believe it was important. Honestly, I also believe it was important for OTB. I’m a founding, supporting member of OTB and the Main Street approach and I think they’ve made a poor decision not to support this event.”
The OTB release mentions working closely with downtown businesses to make their decision, with Hurley adding that he has heard complaints from businesses before.
“There are people who do not care for the Annual Street Party because maybe it hurts their business because ‘we closed the street at 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, or they don’t make enough money from it,’ you know, I hear that from some business people,” he said.
When asked whether he thought certain demographics in the community would be unfairly impacted given the amount of pricier events hosted by Our Town Belfast, Schmesser said the board understood and “is looking at ways to get truly, a family-friendly event.”
“By doing that, the need is to have additional resources to do that, whether it be volunteers or otherwise. By moving it to another time of year it allows us to have additional volunteers to support a family friendly event.”
The Annual Street Party will take place in August.
Erica Thoms can be reached at email@example.com