FLEMINGTON, NJ – The Rotary clubs who are organizing the Hunterdon staging of the Central Jersey Jazz Festival say they assumed sponsorship of the event because of “political turmoil” in Flemington and because “it became obvious that this event would run the risk of not happening” if the groups didn’t act.

That’s according to a letter from Rotary members Bob Junge and Andy West, which Hunterdon Freeholder Director Suzanne Lagay read into the record at yesterday’s freeholder meeting.

No representative from the Rotary attended the meeting.

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This year will be the eighth year of the festival, which has been held in Somerville and New Brunswick. It will be the third year it will be held in Hunterdon, but the Rotary decided to move it from downtown Flemington to the county’s Deer Path Park in Readington. On April 5, the Freeholders approved the Rotary’s request to use the park for the Sept. 16 event.

The change in venue has been criticized by some, including Freeholder Rob Walton, who previously told Junge and Rotary member Mary Beth Sullivan that, “I can’t think of a worse place to put it.”

At yesterday’s freeholder meeting, former Flemington Borough Councilman Joey Novick acknowledged the turmoil, but added that moving its location to Deer Path Park only adds to it.

The festival was “enormously successful” when it was held in Flemington, he said. Megan Jones-Holt, a member of the Clinton Sunrise Rotary, negotiated for the festival to be staged here in her former role as executive director of Flemington’s Business Improvement District.

The event attracted foot traffic and increased shopping, Novick said, and any parking issues could have been resolved by organizing parking at Liberty Village. And the festival’s other locations are also held in downtowns, he said, not in county parks.

The freeholders’ decision to allow the event to be moved “had elements of vindictiveness” towards Flemington, according to Novick, and he said there should be support from the freeholders to keep it in the borough.

The claim of vindictiveness was met with doubt from Raritan Township Committeeman Lou Reiner, who told freeholders he was “taken aback” by Novick’s remark and asked him to prove his claim.

Freeholder John Lanza, whose law office is in on Main Street in Flemington, said, “The question before us was up or down,” to either approve or reject the Rotary Clubs’ request to stage the event in Readington. It was an “application we are obliged to grant” if the applicant is qualified, he said.

“If I had my druthers, this thing would be in Flemington,” he said, adding that he’d “be damned” to allow the claim of political vindictiveness to stand.

Novick bemoaned that the Rotary’s organizers had no conversation with borough officials in advance of seeking a change in the festival’s venue. “It’s no different than someone asking to move the (location of) the Christmas Parade, or Memorial Day Parade, he said.

Flemington resident Robert Shore, who is a member of the board that previously ran the borough’s improvement district, called Novick’s claims somewhere between “disingenuous and absurd.” Novick’s actions when he was a member of Borough Council led to the “de-designation” of his board, Shore said, thereby leading to the circumstances that prompted the Rotary’s action.

Novick said he hopes the festival can be moved back to Flemington in the future, but that isn’t likely, according to the letter. It cites “affordability, a better experience for attendees and the ability for expansion” as reasons to hold the event elsewhere.

“The cost to close a down a town is enormous,” the letter claims and “we did not feel it was in Rotary’s best interest to continue along this parallel.” Moving to the park “has reduced overhead expenses by half. That represents thousands of dollars in cost reduction and we rely exclusively on funding from sponsorships to cover the cost of performers, marketing and logistical services required in producing an outdoor music festival.”

Freeholder approval to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages and permit consumption on the park lawn “will give the attendee a much better experience,” according to the letter. “Downtowns, due to existing ordinances in an effort to appease a majority of resident and commercial mix ... require a hard stop time of 10 p.m. This has been a problem in the past.” The downtown requirement that alcohol be consumed only in fenced-in areas “controlled by police detail ... does not provide a friendly relaxed atmosphere for jazz music lovers.”

The park also offers “a broader viewing area” and the “economic impact with an expanded court of food, beverage, local artisans and boutique retailers” provide an “inclusive opportunity” for all of Hunterdon, the letter states.

The Rotary’s involvement with the free festival isn’t new. According to the letter, the “Clinton Sunrise and North Hunterdon Rotary Clubs have been the main source of volunteers for this event accounting for almost 60 percent of the event volunteers.” That involvement prompted the “decision that our clubs would take on the management of the Hunterdon portion of the event,” the letter states.

The Rotary believes that the festival will attract up to 5,000 people to Deer Path Park. The clubs will accept donations for parking, which will help fund the clubs’ fishing derbies, park improvements, food pantry support and student scholarships, according to the letter.

The letter claims that “the press has been reporting misinformation regarding the roles of who is producing the event and why it was moved,” but doesn’t explain the error. It states, “We hope this letter presents more clarity on the subject and that any further negative press that might impact the success and future of this event may cease.”

In an interview this afternoon, Junge said he felt the press hadn't properly explained who was sponsoring the festival this year. He added that he wasn't sure who had previously sponsored the Hunterdon staging of the event and didn't know that Flemington officials might have wanted it to continue in the borough.

This article has been updated to include comments from Bob Junge.