Tonawanda News

April 5, 2012

Scale back Canal Fest hours

The Tonawanda News

— — A decision Tuesday by the Tonawanda Common Council to require daily Canal Fest operations on the south side of the canal to conclude by 10 p.m., rather than 11, apparently isn’t sitting well with Canal Fest organizers, who have yet to agree to the change.

City officials voted to cut one hour off each of the event’s eight nights in an effort to curb rowdy — and criminal — behavior by youths that occurs late in the evening. It’s a “safety-first” decision and Canal Fest organizers would be wise to acquiesce to this condition.

Most of the problems, as indicated by Chief of Police John Ivancic and the city council, are related to the midway, located on Niagara Street. While there is a fun, friendly family atmosphere during the day and early evening hours, that mood changes and becomes ominous as the night progresses.

We’ve noticed it, too. The families are mostly gone by 10 p.m. People operating booths (even on the NT side) are beginning to pack up. Those who remain are mostly high school age and we don’t see them spending much money. But there’s nothing to hold their interest on the North Tonawanda side, so they loiter in the midway area. As these kids hang out, often in large groups, tensions rise.

All one has to do is listen to the police radio scanner to fully understand the situation. Reports of unruly behavior begin to climb as the sun sets. By 10 p.m. the police radio is nearly nonstop chatter as officers provide alerts to suspicious or threatening situations.

Sometimes things boil over. It almost did last year as about 150 youths congregated in an adjacent parking lot, prompting police to shut down the midway and clear people out. A brawl did break out at the end of an evening in 2009 inside a nearby McDonalds where youths had retreated to escape a downpour.

Disturbances on the north side of the canal are a fraction of those on the south bank. The activities in NT are decidedly more adult, with a focus on the beer tent and music at the Gateway Stage. If there is trouble, there are only two ways to exit the festival grounds: at the foot of either the Delaware or Renaissance bridges. Therefore, the festival grounds on the NT side can easily be cordoned off by police.

There is no such luxury in Tonawanda, where vast open spaces offer troublemakers ample opportunity for a hasty retreat.

Now nearly 30 years old, Canal Fest remains a jewel in the Twin Cities. It attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year, and the packed streets are a testament to the hard work and time invested by the organization’s volunteers.

However, one black eye could mar the event’s reputation for years to come. City of Tonawanda officials are trying to prevent that. Let’s hope the Canal Fest Board of Directors recognizes this and agrees to the change.