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Controversy brewing over fair dates in Houlton, Presque Isle

HOULTON, Maine — Should the Northern Maine Fair change the dates of its festival to directly conflict with the Houlton Agricultural Fair?

That is a question officials from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry must decide during a special hearing Friday, Oct. 12, in Augusta.

The Northern Maine Fair is seeking to change the dates of its fair, which has typically taken place at the end of July, to instead run from Friday, June 28, through Saturday, July 6. This past year, the Presque Isle festival was held from July 27 to Aug. 4.

The newly proposed dates are in direct competition with Houlton’s annual fair, which currently is slated for July 4-7 in 2019.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is scheduled to conduct a hearing to take testimony both for and against the requested date change at 10 a.m. Oct. 12 in Room 118 of the Marquardt Building at 32 Blossom Lane in Augusta.

Lynwood Winslow, president of the Northern Maine Fair, appeared before the Presque Isle City Council Wednesday evening asking councilors to draft a letter of support for the date change. During that meeting, Winslow said the change was needed because that is when the fair’s provider of carnival rides is available.

According to Paul Cleary, president of the Houlton Agricultural Fair Association, Smokey’s Greater Shows of Fryeburg secured the contract to provide midway rides to the Bangor State Fair in 2019. Because the Bangor State Fair is scheduled for July 27-Aug. 5, the midway company would not be able to provide rides for the Northern Maine Fair under its normal dates. Last year, Fiesta Shows of Seabrook, N.H., provided the midway entertainment at the Bangor State Fair.

Cleary said he was asked by officials with Smokey’s Greater Shows to consider moving the dates of Houlton’s festival to July 11-14, but that request did not sit well with members of the Houlton fair board.

“We, as a board, decided that we will not change our dates,” Cleary said. “We have been around the Fourth of July as a licensed fair since 1986. A Fourth of July celebration has happened in Houlton on a continuous basis in Houlton since 1981.”

Houlton has hosted a fair as part of the July 4th celebrations for the past 30 years and traditionally celebrated the Fourth with a parade and fireworks for decades before that, he said.

“The town of Houlton is the place to be on the Fourth of July,” Cleary said. “I tell people this all over the state. Nobody does a town wide celebration like we do here in Houlton. Between the Chamber and its Midnight Madness to our fair, we attract thousands of people to town. That has a positive impact on businesses.”

At that Presque Isle Council meeting, Winslow told the councilors that the Northern Maine Fair had to be a nine-day event to generate enough income to pay their staff and other expenses.

The Presque Isle councilors agreed to draft a letter of support for the date change. In that letter, City Manager City Manager Martin Puckett states, “Going forward the possibility of moving the date to June 28 to July 6 is exciting for our community. The fair, which already is an important tourism event for the area, has struggled to continue to attract local families when they have to choose an event to attend, due to limited budgets. The ability to combine many local events with the fair efforts around the July 4th National Holiday will make for a larger, more inclusive event. Our support for this date change comes with a sense of new opportunities and partnerships.”

The Houlton Town Council is expected to approve drafting its own letter in opposition to the date change during its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Cleary said that if the Northern Maine Fair’s requested change of dates moves forward, the two fairs will then compete with each other for attendance as Houlton has no plans to alter its festival dates.

“It will hurt both of us,” he said. “Nobody is going to win out of this.”

Many of the food vendors that come to the Houlton Fair also travel to Presque Isle, Cleary added, which means they will wind up losing money in the long run as well.

Because Houlton plans to stick with its dates, that means the fair board is currently without a midway provider for amusement rides for the coming season.

“We basically are looking at two options,” Cleary said. “We have some pretty good leads on going with a different carnival, or we may have a fair without a carnival, with a lot of different activities involved.”

Cleary said he has already received seven letters of support from local businesses and expects to receive a similar letter from the Houlton Town Council after Tuesday evening’s meeting.

Jane Torres, executive director for the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday, Oct. 4, that if the two fairs were competing against each other, both would suffer.

“It would definitely impact the number of people that come to town,” she said. “People come home (over the Fourth) to see family and friends. They go to the fair and Midnight Madness. There is just a lot of things going on.”

She added that people from Houlton often travel to Presque Isle for the Northern Maine Fair just as folks from there come to Houlton for its festival, which includes the Chamber’s popular “Midnight Madness” celebration. That event typically draws thousands of people to downtown Houlton for a street fair, complete with fireworks over the Gateway Crossing Bridge. Next year’s Midnight Madness is scheduled to take place on July 3.

The Chamber has drafted a letter opposing Presque Isle’s request to change the dates of its fair.

“During ‘Fair week’ a well-coordinated list of events takes place with our Agricultural Fair as the centerpiece,” Torres stated in her letter. “The Chamber holds its most popular event, Midnight Madness, on the night before the fair begins, drawing over 6,000 people into our small community. The Saturday of the scheduled fair, we host the 4th of July Holiday Craft Fair less than a mile away as well as a thriving Community Market and numerous high school reunions. We believe all of these would be severely impacted with the loss of the Houlton Agricultural Fair on the week of the Fourth Traditions are sacred here in Houlton.”

Officials with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will accept written and oral testimony either in favor of or opposed to the proposed date change at the Oct. 12 hearing. The department also will accept written testimony prior to the hearing.

Written submissions should be sent mailed to: Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Attn: Shannon Ayotte, 22 SHS, Augusta, ME 04333-0022 or emailed to shannon.ayotte@maine.gov and must be received no later than Oct. 12.

Star-Herald reporter Melissa Lizotte contributed to this article.

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