PATERSON, NJ – Last year, historic flooding forced the cancelation of Paterson’s annual Great Falls Festival. This year, a rising tide of red ink is the culprit.
In the latest instance in which fiscal constraints have dealt a blow to Paterson’s plans for a community celebration, city officials have canceled the three-day Labor Day weekend event that organizers say has drawn as many as 70,000 people in some years.
Instead, officials are trying to organize an “Autumn Fest” during Columbus Day weekend, but only if they can arrange enough financing - including private donations - to offset the city’s costs.
Normally, the city provides a $25,000 stipend, plus another $90,000 to $120,000 in “in-kind” contributions through the assignment of police, fire and public works personnel to the festival, said Jamie Dykes, chairman of Celebrate Paterson, the nonprofit group that has run the event for the past decade.
But Paterson has been under increasing pressure from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to cut spending on celebrations and events, a crackdown that has resulted in earlier cancelations this year of the city’s Mother’s Day Breakfast and its Memorial Day Kickoff Celebration. Also, the city had to stop providing refreshments for National Night Out block parties.
Officials said they realized the state would not allow the city to invest so much money in the Great Falls Festival. Moreover, Mayor Jeffrey Jones said, the city itself cannot afford to shoulder such a sizeable financial burden.
“No one in their right mind wants to do an event that loses money, especially when the taxpayers are involved,’’ said Jones. “We’re trying to develop a new format where we can get everything we want – the fun and entertainment – without using the tax dollars.’’
“If we can’t get the people to buy in, we won’t do it,’’ said Jones.
Officials said the Paterson Municipal Utilities Authority likely will hold a three-day Labor Day weekend concert at Overlook Park to give folks something to do in the city in light of the cancelation of the Great Falls festival.
Also, the Ivanhoe Artists have joined with other cultural groups to organize what they’re calling the Great Falls Arts Festival on Sept. 1 and 2 at 70 Spruce Street. That event will feature performances by Rock, Latin and Hip Hop performers, art exhibitions and vendors. But folks will be asked to pay a $12 “donation” at the door.
Dykes said that one of the things the annual Great Falls festival prided itself on was the fact that people of all income levels could enjoy the free entertainment.
Over the years, the festival has featured performances by world-renowned high-wire acts. Months, after walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, Phillippe Petit crossed the Great Falls on a wire. One year, a performer walked a tightrope suspended from helicopters, Dykes said. Also, the Wallenda family has appeared.
Over the years, the festival has featured such attractions as hot-air balloon rides, amateur boxing, midget-car performers and circus animals. Rides, music and food have been annual staples.
The Great Falls festival started in the late 1960s when Lawrence “Pat” Kramer was mayor. “I’m proud that it started with us, but it has continued through a number of other administrations,’’ Kramer said. “It’s been very popular over the weeks and it was good for the kids of Paterson.’’
Kramer said he was sorry to see the event canceled this year, but he added that he understood the situation. “The mayor and council have their reasons,’’ he said. “If they don’t have the money, they don’t have the money.’’
Over the years, Kramer said he believed the festival drew attention to the wonders of the Great Falls and helped build momentum for its designation as a national park. He said the festival was held on Labor Day weekend to tie in with the city’s legacy as the birthplace of the America labor movement.
In fact, the annual Labor Day parade that starts at the American Labor Museum in Hawthorne traditionally ends at the Great Falls and spills into the festival.
City officials are not sure whether they will be able to pull off the proposed Autumn Fest in October. Dykes said the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone director is soliciting donations. He said he was not sure exactly how much needed to be raised for the event to occur.
Moreover, Dykes said, the city has asked labor unions and officials in its police, fire and public works departments whether they can make adjustments that can contain the costs of the festival.