Festival of Trees event canceled in Houlton

3 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — The Christmas season may have a little less sparkle after the Health Services Foundation announced its popular Festival of Trees events could not be held this year.

Because of COVID-19, the annual tree auction will not take place at Houlton Regional Hospital, and attempts to make the fundraiser a virtual event were shut down by the state’s gaming regulations.

“It is with great sadness and regret that the Health Services Foundation announces the cancellation of this year’s Festival of Trees Event,” said Lori Weston, executive director of the Foundation. “Many hours of brainstorming with community-minded members, running through every possible scenario to negate risks, investigating spaces and buildings that could adequately work, took place over the past several weeks before the difficult decision was made to cancel the event.”

The joy of the holiday season begins early in the Foundation office, with calls from excited participants, describing their ideas and tree themes. 

“It is contagious and this year, in particular, a welcome relief from all things COVID-related,” Weston said. “The connections made during the Festival are ones that cannot be overstated. Many have described their time looking at the trees and listening to the quiet holiday music as just the thing to get into the holiday spirit and witness the thoughtful generosity of the tree donations.”

Weston explained that because the Festival of Trees qualifies as a “Raffle-Game of Chance” in the state’s opinion, a specific set of rules must be followed. 

“While some raffles meet or fall below the $2,500 limit set for the value of the prize(s) won in a raffle, the need to apply for a gaming license is not needed,” Weston explained. “However, the Festival of Trees is based on the combined value of all of the trees and their prizes and therefore a license was required.”

Last year, the festival featured nearly 50 trees and raised a record $34,000 for the foundation.

Weston explained that the license application requires the applicant to state the location where the event will take place, details associated and takes up to 30 days to be issued.

“The combination of meeting the restrictions as outlined by the CDC with regard to social distancing, the number of people allowed in a given square footage space and the reality that any crowd gathering brings the risk of possible community spread made every aspect of trying to find the right space, as it turns out, nearly impossible,” she said.

Initially, plans were put in motion to find a space outside of Houlton Regional Hospital for the trees to be displayed, and then to show them virtually through a website and social media. The group planned to sell the tickets online, but the State Gaming Commissioner said it was illegal to sell tickets virtually or by phone in Maine.

The “person to person” caveat of selling tickets brought its own set of issues. Possible sites for ticket outlets were investigated, but not having the visuals of the trees coupled with having to go to the ticket outlet to purchase tickets made it a complicated venture, officials said.

The Foundation conducted a random survey of people who have participated in the event in the past and found that the likelihood of making a trip to purchase a ticket was prohibitive.

“There has been a tremendous outpouring of ideas and suggestions from the community to try to bring this event to fruition,” she said. “The fact that it has become a much-loved community event has never been more evident.”

One suggestion was to reach out to local businesses and have the trees displayed in windows throughout the downtown. While that seemed like a good idea, the reality was each tree is often filled with a large number of pricey gift certificates and items.

“The security of the trees would be paramount and in places where there is limited staff and walk-in public traffic, it would be difficult to monitor the security of the trees,” Weston said. “Outdoor options were even considered but security and the need for a steady group of around-the-clock volunteers would have been necessary.”

Proceeds from the festival helped the local hospital, area clinics, municipalities and area schools by providing critically needed equipment, programs, technology upgrades and medical options that, in turn, meant better care.

“Our community is beyond amazing, caring and doing for a purpose greater than oneself and for a greater good,” Weston said. “Sadness doesn’t quite describe how it feels to cancel this event. Over the past few weeks, contact with like organizations and any options that they too have considered and that we might have missed, has connected the Foundation to incredible folks who, like the Foundation, will see their non-profit organization and their ability to help their organizations and communities hindered in a significant way.

“It is wonderful to hear that many are already making their plans for next year, or putting this year’s tree to rest for a few months in anticipation of great things to come,”  she continued. “It is an indescribable feeling, making a heart that was feeling three sizes too small, to answer calls about making a donation to the Foundation in a year where it was beginning to feel like the Grinch had taken a bit of a foothold.”