Tonawanda News

July 21, 2012

Closing time debated

By Neale Gulley, neale.gulley@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Police in the City of Tonawanda say the decision to close Canal Fest an hour earlier this year has meant fewer arrests at the area’s longest festival, while others say the lost time has resulted in a sharp decline in vendors’ profits.

Ride operator Les “Corky” Powers, owner of the Powers Great American Midway, stated that he would lose a third of his overall ride revenue when the decision was made earlier this year to close the event on the city side at 10 p.m., rather than 11 p.m.

Around the same time, City of Tonawanda Police Chief John Ivancic told the city council that security concerns prompted each year by unruly young people during the event’s final hour necessitated the move.

”The numbers don’t lie,” Ivancic said late Friday from the police command post near the midway.

He said last year police made 22 arrests in the first five days of Canal Fest, as compared to this year’s eight.

”Obviously it has helped. I think it helps us to try and keep things on an even keel. There’s less time for tempers to flair,” he said.

Ivancic said last year, 11 of the first 13 arrests over the initial three days of Canal Fest were classified as disturbance calls (for things like disorderly conduct) and that just four out of seven over the first three days this year were similar in nature.

But Rae Proefrock of the Carrousel Society of the Niagara Frontier, whose community organization sponsors and receives revenue from the popular rides, said vendors who have set up shop for decades in and around the midway are reporting revenues are down between 20 percent and 50 percent.

”Everyone is being hurt by this,” she said.

Food revenues following Tuesday’s parade were especially low, she said, as crowds gathered to watch the event began dispersing at its conclusion around 8:30 or 8:45 p.m. rather than lingering into the night.

”Having read about it in the paper that it was closing at 10 p.m., people have started going home at 9 this year,” she said. 

Proefrock, who has observed the event from the Carrousel Society booth in the center of the midway for 28 straight years, said while police have “done a really good job” dealing with crowds so far this year, she thinks the smaller number of arrests are the result of a change in police strategy, not the earlier closing time. 

She said she is concerned that the fewer arrests reflect a strategy ultimately designed to sell the controversial change to the public.

”My concern is that Tonawanda officers are going to say ‘we’ve done a great thing. Just look at the low arrest record.’ My assertion is it’s not that, it’s a change in strategy on the part of the police department.”

She said from what she’s seen this year, police seem to have returned to a more congenial approach to addressing and dispersing large groups of young people. In the past, she said the atmosphere between sometimes disrespectful kids and city cops was more contentious from the start.

”We have not seen any handcuffs this year. Our suspicion is it’s deliberate, to say, see, the 10 o’clock cutoff works,” she said. “It’s going to look like they made a wonderful decision.”

Ivancic said there has been no change whatsoever in the approach police are taking to maintain order at the event. 

Saying he is growing tired of “the negativity and the criticisms of the department and the way we operate,” Ivancic said Proefrock is entitled to her opinion but not qualified to make such an observation.

”Well she knows nothing about police work,” he said. “Her opinion is her own and I would vehemently disagree with that. There is no change in policy down here or in what we do.”

Regarding the question of lost revenues, Ivancic, who has handled Canal Fest security for three years, said most of the vendor booths run by community organizations are closed by 10 p.m. Still, he said until each business discloses exact earnings, claims about lost revenue can’t be specifically addressed.

”My concern is public safety, not how much money is being made,” he said. 

With booths on the North Tonawanda side of the event remaining open until 11 p.m., Ivancic said some new problems have arisen dispersing crowds and dealing with patrons who must cross the bridge to take in the event’s final hour.

While he said some police overtime is being saved, officers still must remain near the midway well past 10 p.m. to enforce the curfew.

“I’d like to stress that we’re not done here,” he said. “Hopefully this trend will continue but there’s no guarantee.”

Speaking of the other side of the canal, Proefrock said booths on the North Tonawanda side, which is still open until 11 p.m., have reported modest gains this year.

Still, she said the earlier closing time has an effect beyond the hour’s difference where patronage to the many not-for-priofit groups operating concessions on the city side is concerned.

She said the roughly 50 community organizations who set up shop at Canal Fest sometimes earn their entire year’s operating budget though Canal Fest concessions.

The Carrousel Society, of which Proefrock is director, earns about 1/4 of their annual budget through an arrangement paying them a percentage of overall ride revenues.

”The rides, as much work as they create for the police and DPW an everyone — we recognize and appreciate that — but that’s what draws the people. There’s something there for everybody at Canal Fest.”

Contact city editor Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114