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Town staff explain decision to end Herndon Festival after 43-year run

Herndon Festival 2023 at night (via Herndon Festival/Facebook)

A plethora of administrative and logistical issues led to the Town of Herndon’s decision to permanently put the Herndon Festival to bed after a 43-year run, staff say.

At a Herndon Town Council meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 12), Town Manager Bill Ashton II laid out several issues that nearly derailed the festival in previous years and ultimately prompted the permanent cancellation of the four-day event, announced earlier this week.

“In my mind, the question was, ‘Should we spend these countless hours planning and preparing, or could this be an opportunity?’” he said.

According to Ashton, last year, town officials scrambled to find a security company to conduct bag checks during the festival.

Two companies abruptly cancelled their commitments — one of them just a day before the festival was set to begin. Staff scrambled to ratify a contract with a company just 1.5 hours before the festival’s gates opened. Local police officers are prohibited from checking bags at the festival without probable cause.

“It was that close,” Ashton said.

Ashton also said the Herndon Police Department must pull every officer that is not on actively watch for rotating shift. Like other public safety entities, the department has faced hiring and recruitment challenges in recent years, and the town can also no longer rely on regional partners to bolster the police presence at the festival site.

Ashton also noted that, in the event of a significant public safety emergency, the town would have no choice but to cancel the festival if a police force was required outside the festival.

“If we have a significant incident…we would have to shut the festival down to adequately put crime scene [officers] and detectives on site,” he said.

Town staff also struggled to secure dedicated volunteers for the event, which relies heavily on volunteer manpower from key organizations and community partners. Many of those groups cited a major dip in volunteerism in general, particularly as key volunteers age out.

Ashton said volunteers are critical to the event, even with staff putting in thousands of hours of work.

“Everybody’s leave gets cancelled or disapproved. Everybody has to be there,” he said. “If you aren’t there, you better have a doctor’s note.”

The Town of Herndon has major knowledge gaps as well. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the parks and recreation department has undergone 100% turnover, and its director, Cindy Roeder, recently retired.

A major construction project to improve Spring Street is set to kick off this spring near the Northwest Federal Credit Union, where the festival would have taken place.

As part of the project, a state contractor will be working on the intersection of Spring Street and Herndon Parkway, requiring lane closures and changes to pedestrian access. Ashton said the town is not an a position to delay the project, which has already seen cost overruns in utility relocation and land acquisition.

Ashton said the community should instead see the cancellation of Herndon’s staple event as an opportunity to pursue more micro-events in the future — similar to the approach adopted last year for the Celebrate Fairfax! Festival. He noted that Fairfax County is open to partnering with the town.

The Fairfax County Times reported that Celebrate Fairfax Inc., the nonprofit organization that organized the county’s annual festival, has officially ended the event after a “private decision” by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, citing a tweet from Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity.

Photo via Herndon Festival/Facebook

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