AS MOST OF you know by now, Decatur Celebration Producer Lori Sturgill resigned her position last week. Now, everyone is wondering what is going to happen to the event that is held on the streets of downtown Decatur during a weekend in August each year. Even more important, will this summer’s Celebra-tion be held Aug. 2-4 as planned and still promoted on the event’s website. Sturgill’s resignation from the position she has held since 2009 brought a lot of questions and plenty of rumors indicating some unrest among more than a few people involved in volunteering and overseeing the event.
I’m not going to get into the middle of the debate about if, or why, Lori decided to move on. I have not talked to Lori or those involved in the unrest among some of the people who have been or are supporting the event. Lori’s public comments have indicated best wishes to the Celebration and her desire to move on. I wish Lori the best. She certainly did not have the easiest job as producer of the event where everyone is a critic.
The most important question is: “What’s going to happen to the Decatur Celebration?” Hiring a new producer to replace Lori is not going to be an easy task, considering the event has been losing money for years, despite the best efforts to make it financially solid.
• WHEN I was mayor I asked for a financial report from then Founder/ Producer Fred Puglia on the Celebration. After all, the city was investing a lot of money and personnel into the event and I thought we had a right to know how it was doing. I did receive a report, but it was incomplete, covering only those months when the Celebration wasn’t being held, so it wasn’t worth much.. The accounting firm that prepared the report had printed on the front page:: “Not prepared according to recognized accounting standards”. Of course, the report was almost useless because it didn’t give us a clear picture of what was happening financially with the event. As I recall, there were one or two additional expenses involving the Celebration where a request was made to the City for funds but there wasn’t any additional funds provided because of the lack of financial information given to us. It’s been several years since that happened and, as far as I know, there’s not been an informative audit of the Celebration’s books that has made its way to the city council or the public. As I recall, every other organization and event that received help from the City, filed without hesitation financial reports so that we could see how taxpayers’ money was being spent.
• SOME people may believe that it is none of the public’s business how the event is doing financially. I disagree. If taxpayers’ money is being used to support an event, and there is no transparency, there is not only suspicion that something sinister is going on, but public bodies like the city council should not be contributing money and inkind services and being kept in the dark about the financial standing of the event, I believe, before anything meaningful can happen, there needs to be presented full information about what the event is generating, attendance figures, etc. Unless you know the Celebration’s standing, how can people, or contributors, help to right the ship?
• IT’S BEEN nearly 35 years since Decatur Celebration Founder/Producer Fred Puglia came to my office (we were located on the northwest corner of Main and Franklin back then) and presented the idea of the Decatur Celebration — as he had to other community leaders. I thought it was a great idea and certainly participated as a businessman and member of the news media. (I also used the “Live At Five” television program I had to promote the event with guests, etc.)
• I HAVE BEEN downtown for all of the Decatur Celebrations — all 33 years so far, but I have to admit that the first few years were the most exciting for me. Since this newspaper has been located downtown all of those years, we were always in the middle of everything that was happening. Transforming the downtown area into a street festival with entertainment I easily recognized, all the walking characters, the parade, music performers I remembered from my youth, and all of the great food, were really exciting aspects of the event! In recent years, I have not been as involved in the event as I was at the beginning and during the years I was mayor and said the magic words to “Let The Celebration Be-gin” on the main stage next to the Civic Center. It was always quite a thrill to stand on that stage and see a crowd of people that stretched down Franklin Street almost as far as the eye could see.
• MY RELATIONSHIP with Lori was not as close as it was with Fred Puglia over the years but several of the people involved in the early years of the event have also been less involved. That’s to be expected as an event evolves over the years. Even though unpopular, decisions made to generate more revenue for the event were necessary for it to continue. Overall, the entertainment in recent years has appealed to a younger crowd. After over 33 years, most of the entertainers I enjoyed are dead or beyond their singing days.
For several years, I have not recognized the names of the entertainers like I once did — but they are well-known and appealing to younger generations. There is no doubt that my view of the Celebration is different now than it was when it first started. I still eat plenty of the food during the three days and have my favorite vendors that I seek out each year. Many of the people I know, and I saw enjoying the Celebration years ago, no longer bother to come downtown for the event. However, there are younger generations that enjoy the event and it is the BIG EVENT of the summer in our community.
• ALTHOUGH MY personal view of the Celebration, has changed with age over the years — I still think it is a great event for the City of Decatur. It has enjoyed a great run, and has lasted much longer than many other festivals held across the nation. That speaks in positive ways of the commitment of the leadership and the countless volunteers who made it happen each year — and still want to make it happen this year. It is going to take some extra strong leadership from the board and the person hired as the new producer, to make the 34th Decatur Celebration happen this year. The Decatur Celebration means different things to different people and generations.
Another BIG question that needs to be answered is: “Is it a good event for our community?” If the answer is “yes”, then it is worth fighting for so that it continues for this year and many years to come.
Paul Osborne joins Brian Byers for City Hall Insider hour on WSOY’s Byers & Co. every Thursday morning at from 7:00 until 8:00.