WINSLOW — Organizers of the town’s massive Fourth of July celebration once again are seeking a new home, capping off a rocky year between the event and town, including a recent report by the town manager that pointed out public safety problems and said Fort Halifax Park is no longer big enough to host the fireworks display, which draws thousands.

A move out of Winslow “has been in the works for a while,” festival Director Kevin Douglass said Thursday. “The writing’s been on the wall.”

The Winslow Family 4th of July board of directors voted unanimously early this month to begin talks with other towns about “what they could do for us and what we could do for them,” said Felecia Gaulin, secretary of the board.

The town of about 7,000 has hosted the event for 26 years, but problems surrounding the three-day celebration, which is said to draw more than 70,000 visitors, have caused increasing tension since before the 2015 event, when Douglass had discussions with neighboring Fairfield about moving it there. Those discussions fell through, but this year’s event was almost canceled in February when Winslow police Chief Shawn O’Leary said police coverage costs would more than double, a bill paid largely by the event.

Town Manager Michael Heavener, at the Town Council’s July 11 meeting, submitted a two-page report on the pros and cons of the event that concluded that Fort Halifax Park is “not a sufficient venue for the fireworks display because it cannot accommodate all of those who wish to attend.” He also said police fatigue was a problem, and at times on the Fourth of July public safety coverage wasn’t adequate for the large crowds that day, despite an added police presence this year, and officers should be added.

“Winslow has made it a little bit difficult for us,” Gaulin said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Heavener said Thursday he hadn’t heard about the board’s vote but agreed changes need to be made.

“The fireworks celebration itself has outgrown the park,” he said, underlining what he’d said in his July 11 report, though the Fourth of July parade, street dance, and daytime activities are all manageable for the town.

Heavener said he plans to discuss possible solutions with public safety officials and the committee.

‘IT’S ALL A GOOD THING’

Meanwhile, the event’s board is working with several municipalities to find a new location, Douglass said.

Gerald Saint Amand, who is president of the group’s board of directors and chairman of the Winslow Town Council, agreed with Douglass’ assessment and said it had been a positive experience hold the event in Winslow.

“There were a lot of crowds and a huge turnout for a parade, and crowd control was always a concern,” he said, “but it went well and there were no major incidents.”

He added, “I’m very happy to have been a part of it.”

Other board members wouldn’t comment.

Gaulin said the changing and increasing costs of security, in addition to a decreased venue size, forced the organizers to eliminate some functions this year.

Douglass said Thursday that the hope is the event will find a “bigger and better location” that will be good for everyone involved — visitors and planners alike.

“It’s all a good thing,” he said. The change will allow the committee to step back and readjust the yearly events, and activities that the committee had to do away with because of increased costs might come back, including free children’s events, he said.

Douglass also said he would like to make the celebration more affordable to nonprofit organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, which could hold fundraising events during the weekend.

He said the committee is working to pick a community that can host an event the size organizers envision and is also “ready to support an event like this.”

Douglass wouldn’t say which towns the organizers have talked to, but Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said Thursday that Douglass met with that town’s council June 22.

In June 2015, organizers discussed moving the event to Fairfield, and Douglass met with town officials several times. He speculated to the Morning Sentinel that Winslow was tired of hosting it, and Winslow public safety officials said the event is a strain on their time and resources.

But the conversation with Fairfield ended when then-Town Manager Josh Reny found out that the event board had not officially approved moving the festival.

POLICE FATIGUE

This year’s celebration almost didn’t happen after O’Leary told the Town Council in February police coverage of the event and trying to cover the town at the same time is more than the small department can handle. Organizers balked at the $11,000 estimated cost for police coverage — up from the $4,000 to $7,000 it had cost previously — and once again the possibility of the event moving out of town was raised. Organizers and town officials eventually reached a compromise.

Winslow’s 11 police officers would get help from two Waterville and three Fairfield officers, as well as two patrol officers from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, according to the agreement. Oakland had also offered officers to help. In April, Heavener said there would be a total of 20 officers on duty over the three days of the event.

O’Leary didn’t respond immediately to a call seeking comment, and Heavener’s report didn’t make note of whether the plan was executed as originally envisioned. But despite the additional officers, his post-event report noted several public safety problems and called for more officers for the event. Heavener’s report was compiled after he met with O’Leary, police Lt. Josh Veillieux, Fire Chief Dave LaFountain and Deputy Fire Chief Charles Theobald Sr.

He said the event started out fairly well, but on the Fourth of July “there were problems with police communication, primarily due to staff fatigue.”

He said while the increased police presence “left some feeling the police were better prepared than in prior years” and rotating police through the park might have given an impression of greater presence, cutting down on alcohol-fueled problems, at times there were only two officers in Fort Halifax Park as the crowd gathered for the fireworks.

“Solution — add two officers,” the report says.

“Winslow police officers were fatigued and exhausted by the evening of (the Fourth of July) because they had worked the street dance the night before as well as their regularly scheduled shifts,” Heavener wrote. “In one instance, an officer only received three hours of rest between the two days.” He noted that eight out of 11 officers worked July 3 until 10:30 p.m. and returned to work the 10 a.m. July 4 parade, afternoon details “and into the evening until approximately 11 p.m.”

“Solution — seek additional police officers from other organizations to replace Winslow officers to give them more time to rest.”

In addition to the police coverage problems, Heavener cited other public safety problems that resulted from the crowd and the park’s layout.

He said vendor placement meant a high concentration of people in one general area “with only one narrow means of egress in the event of an emergency. This situation is very concerning.”

He also said because of gridlock in the vicinity of the park and U.S. Route 201, area fire departments were asked to be available in the event they were needed in Winslow.

The references to non-profit participation and last year’s discussions with Fairfield have been clarified in this article.

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour