Thousands of people gathered in Portland’s historic downtown for what was billed as the 46th and final Old Port Festival on a perfectly cloudless Sunday with temperatures reaching 71 degrees.

Shoestring Theater’s eclectic parade of giant puppets marched down Exchange Street to the pulsing rhythms of a marching band, passing the sea of smiling faces and cellphones of crowds standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalk. Children scooped up candy as soon as it landed at their feet. And vendors lined the streets.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, dressed as a jester, led the parade on his scooter. And Greg Frangoulis towered over everybody on his stilts as he danced and twirled white flags over his head – just as he has for more than 30 years.

“People light up,” said the 57-year-old Frangoulis, who was dressed in his colorfully striped trousers and peering down at a reporter. “That’s why I do it.”

Shortly after the parade wound down to Market and Commercial streets, live music from three stages began to permeate the portion of Portland’s historic downtown bounded by Congress, Temple, Union, Commercial and Pearl streets. The smells of Italian sausage, fried dough and kettle corn filled the air. And young people filled outdoor decks of local drinking establishments.

It was a scene that has played out for decades – summer’s traditional inception in Maine’s largest city. But it will be the last – unless a group of business owners is successful in their effort to preserve the annual celebration.

This spring, Portland Downtown, the nonprofit that oversees the event, announced it would no longer be putting on the popular festival, which brings food, crafts, free music and general merriment to multiple stages in Maine’s largest city.

Portland Downtown Executive Director Casey Gilbert has said the festival has “achieved its mission” of getting people to come to the Old Port – now a bustling neighborhood of businesses beloved by tourists for its quaint feel and cobblestone streets.

The festival has grown and evolved over the years. In 2014, the group created an expanded Old Port Festival Weekend – three days of events, with the Old Port Festival just one of them. A Ferris wheel was set up in the DiMillo’s parking lot to draw people to the area. But organizers have scaled back on the other carnival-type rides, on the number of stages for live music and on out-of-town food and product vendors.

Last year, there were some 230 vendors, including about 42 Old Port businesses with tables set up on the sidewalk. There were just three stages of live music, besides a children’s stage, when in some years there had been six or more.

Merchants like Rod Joslyn, who owns Pandemonium gift shop at the corner of Fore and Exchange streets, are not sad to see it go. He said the event has gone from a family-friendly summer kickoff featuring local businesses to an onslaught of sloppy drunks and a carnival-like atmosphere.

“A lot of people vomit out in front of my store,” Joslyn said, noting that someone did just that on his window around 1:30 p.m. last year. “That’s why people were complaining about it, because it went from good food from the restaurants and great crafts, (to where) the crowd went downhill. This became the place to listen to music and drink.”

Along Fore Street and Commercial Street, signs at high-end retailers and restaurants normally open on Sundays, like Joseph’s apparel and Central Provisions, had posted signs on their windows saying they were closed because of the Old Port Festival.

But many other retailers and restaurants continue to embrace the tradition. Peter Spano owns Siempre Mas, which has been on Fore Street for 30 years. He said the Old Port Festival is a great way to unload inventory before the summer tourist season begins. He had several racks of $5 clothing outside his store Sunday.

“We’re going to hate to see it go,” the 69-year-old Spano said of the festival. “It’s a huge boon to businesses.”

Nicki Dansereau, left, and Nick Dipietrantinio, both of Wiscasset, sign petitions Sunday to keep this from being the last Old Port Festival. Dock Fore owner Shaun McCarthy, in pink at left, initiated the petition drive. His employee Ben Hodgkins, sitting second from right, gets passers-by to sign. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Other Old Port businesses are taking action to save the festival.

Shaun McCarthy owns the Dock Fore bar. He was in front of his business collecting signatures aimed at preserving the annual event. He was dismayed that Portland Downtown, a nonprofit Downtown Improvement District, suddenly announced the end of the Old Port Festival.

McCarthy said the district cited a survey of its membership as the reason for the festival’s demise, but he never received that survey. He noted that Portland Downtown is funded by a mandatory tax assessment on property owners in the district and suggested the board of directors lacks appropriate representation of bar and restaurant owners, who support the festival.

“We were blindsided by the whole thing,” McCarthy said.

A steady stream of people were signing the petition outside Dock Fore shortly after the parade ended and the music began Sunday.

“It’s a staple of the town,” said Nick Dipietrantonio, a 28- year-old Portland native who now lives in Wiscasset. He’s been attending the festival for the last 10 years and hopes it can be saved. “I come here for the food and to people-watch.”

“People of all walks of life gather at this thing when it goes on, so it’s sad they’re supposedly getting rid of it,” said 30-year-old Nicki Dansereau of Wiscasset, who signed the petition.

McCarthy said he would present the signatures to either the city or Portland Downtown, or both.

Among the revelers in the crowd was Gae Jackson, who has been coming to the festival for more than four decades. The 62-year-old Portland resident held her 2 1/2-year-old grandson, Wesley, along the parade route and lamented the impending end of a Portland tradition.

“It’s sad,” Jackson said. “The parade has always been my favorite part.”

Kara Casey agreed. The 30-year-old Standish resident said she’s been coming to the Old Port Festival since high school.

“We’re sad this is the last one,” said Casey, holding her 22-month-old daughter, Lilyanna. “Now she won’t be able to experience what we experienced.”

Nance Parker is the mastermind behind the Shoestring Theater. She’s been a part of the Old Port Festival from the beginning and created all of the big-headed parade puppets, some of which stand 14 feet tall.

But as her puppets were being packed away in a box truck at the foot of Market Street, she was resigned to this being the final year of the festival.

“All good things must come to an end,” said Parker, 62.

Sharon Gorwood, however, was not ready to let go so easily. The 34-year-old South Portland resident has been marching in the Showstring Theater parade since she was in kindergarten. She’s gone from holding up one hand of a puppet to being a belly-dancer. She’s among those petitioning to save the festival.

“I’m so sad,” Gorwood said. “I was going to have my kids be in it.”

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