Uncertainty abounds this year about where the Winslow Family 4th of July Celebration will be held — or if it will be held at all.

The group organizing the celebration, which has called Fort Halifax on the Kennebec River home for events and a fireworks display, sought to move the festivities to Fairfield following financial disagreements with Winslow.

However, the organizers’ formal proposal was not accepted by Fairfield, and the organizers haven’t come back with another proposal. The volunteer celebration group is eyeing Clinton as a possibility, but an official there says many details need to be worked out. Officials in Winslow say the group needs to pay thousands in unpaid bills if festivities are to be in that town.

Kevin Douglass, vice chairman of the Winslow Family 4th of July Committee, the volunteer group that puts on the event, said while the group’s proposal had originally been for Mill Island, they were open to any venue in Fairfield, which included the Police Athletic League sports fields. However, the Fairfield Town Council ultimately did not approve a plan for Mill Island.

“I said we’d be open to any location,” Douglass said last week.

For 26 years, the Winslow Family 4th of July Celebration has been a staple in central Maine. The event draws tens of thousands annually and features parades through town, live music, contests and fireworks at Fort Halifax Park. But after decades of the multi-day events, tension has grown between Winslow and the organizers, a nonprofit group with a board of directors that put on the event with volunteers.

Rising costs for police coverage is one of the major reasons cited for the fallout between Winslow and the celebration. Additionally, the celebration costs between $50,000 and $60,000, and in recent years the organizers have struggled to raise the funds.

As early as 2015, the organizers began seeking a new home and reached out to officials in neighboring Fairfield. Douglass met with town officials on the matter a handful of times, but those talks at the time stalled. In late 2016, Douglass said the organization had settled on Fairfield as a location for the event because it offered more space, and he said the group was planning to restructure the celebration. At the time, he said they were planning to scale back the event to a smaller, more community-oriented celebration. He said the goal was to make the event more like Old Home Days celebrations, which are annual celebrations usually held in early summer in New England towns.

However, the festival right now doesn’t have a home.

Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said town councilors did not approve the last plan for the festival to come to town. The 4th of July Committee last came before the council at its Dec. 14, 2016, meeting. The committee was instructed to come back with a different plan to the council’s next meeting on Dec. 28. Flewelling said there were a number of concerns the town had with the plans the group had come forward with, including possible locations.

The initial proposal called for the events to take place on Mill Island, which Flewelling said was too small to accommodate everything. The Police Athletic League sports fields were discussed as a possible venue, but Flewelling said the PAL Board did not want the events there because of planned improvements to the field that would be taking place over the summer and concerns that something as large as the July Fourth celebration could damage the fields.

Additionally, there were concerns about the cost of the event. Flewelling said the cost would be “astronomical,” so one contingency the town wanted was to be paid up front for the event and another was that the town of Winslow be “made whole,” since the town is still owed for the previous celebration.

Flewelling said the council indicated they would like to see some kind of July Fourth celebration in the future, but this proposal was not it. Since the council has not received any additional information from the organizers, it has moved forward to produce a municipal budget and decided not to move forward with a planned July Fourth celebration for 2017.

“We just decided it will be something we will look into next year,” Flewelling said.

COSTS CONCERNS

This past year, the event’s prospects were thrown into question over an impasse concerning costs for police coverage with organizers saying that an initial $11,000 estimated cost was too high. Those worries were quelled after law enforcement officials from area police departments and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office agreed to pitch in to help Winslow police officers cover the festivities.

The event moved to Winslow after a disastrous alcohol-fueled celebration at Head of Falls in Waterville in 1990, in which a couple hundred intoxicated people jumped up and down on the Two Cent Bridge until part of it broke and four police officers were injured in confrontations with people.

Winslow Town Manager Michael Heavener said the organizers of the event still owe the town $14,000 for public safety provided over the past two years. He said they were hoping to work that payment out with the organizers, as they had made a smaller payment in 2016. Last year’s police and fire coverage for the celebration was over $10,000, and the year prior to that the coverage cost over $6,000. Last year the organizers made a payment of about $2,000.

Gerald Saint Amand, who was on the board of directors for the event, said the committee is working with Winslow to resolve the issue. Most of the money is raised through fundraising, he said, though the town does contribute some.

“Hopefully we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s going to happen,” he said.

Douglass said that the group traditionally makes payments for the event in June of the following year, but this past year they were told to pay much earlier, in October, which made it appear the group was behind in paying the bill.

Heavener said it was up to the Town Council to decide whether the event would be brought back at some point in the future, but he said the town would need to be paid back and given a financial assurance about payment, such as a retainer or being paid in full up front.

However, the celebration itself still presents concerns.

“The concern I think that we’ve had over the last couple years has been the venue,” Heavener said.

The celebrations were held in Fort Halifax Park, which Heavener said was not large enough to accommodate the crowds. Roughly 70,000 attended the celebration, which is about 10 times larger than the town’s population. The crowd at Fort Halifax spills out onto the main road, which is U.S. Route 201. This creates traffic congestion, he said, especially when the fireworks go off.

“We’ve got concerns about that. We don’t feel it’s a sufficient venue for the evening of the fireworks,” Heavener said.

Heavener said the town won’t go without some kind of celebration, though. For the third year in a row, the town will hold Fort Halifax Days, which includes a series of historical re-enactments.

FIREWORKS TALKS

Flewelling said Fairfield may do their own July Fourth celebration in the future, maybe as early as next year. She said it was just too late this year in terms of the budget, and it was too late to organize an event on their own.

Douglass said he was optimistic there will be a Family 4th of July Celebration. They have been in discussions with Clinton, which has fairgrounds that Douglass said provided much better parking than the current spot in Winslow. He said he didn’t even think it was an option whether or not to celebrate.

“What it stands for is so much bigger than any of us,” Douglass said.

Douglass said it was important that the area did not lose such a major celebration. He said that whichever community became home for the event would show it was the “most patriotic community in central Maine.”

Buddy Frost, who is on the board of directors for the Clinton Lions Club, said there have been preliminary discussions about moving the fireworks portion of the celebration to town. Clinton does not hold a July Fourth fireworks event, but it does shoot off fireworks during the fair the club hosts in early September. Frost said there are still details to be worked out, but he believed the board was overall in favor of bringing the fireworks to Clinton.

“We had a meeting with them. We have details to work out. But I think — we haven’t voted yet — but overall there’s a good chance we will do that,” Frost said.

Frost didn’t want to talk about the financial problems the event has had in the past, but he did acknowledge them as a possible concern going forward. He said the hope is to have the fireworks at the fairgrounds for this year.

Frost said the event’s organizers approached board president Robert Hartley some time after the first of the year and would be attending a meeting with Hartley in the next month, after which the Lions Club would make a decision.

“There’s still a lot to work out,” Frost said. “We’re not there yet.”

Frost said they “certainly haven’t said no” to hosting the fireworks, and many club members are in favor of it.

The fair venue, located on Route 100, has sufficient parking for the event, Frost said, enough to accommodate about 4,000 people. Frost also said Douglass is a vendor at the Clinton Lions Fair, so they knew him “fairly well” before discussions began.

“We’re willing to give it a try, probably,” Frost said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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