South Whidbey Parks district OKs Choochokam permit request

The Choochokam Arts Festival’s proposed move from downtown Langley to Community Park got its final OK this week.

South Whidbey Parks and Recreation commissioners unanimously approved the event’s permit application during the board’s regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, April 20. The marathon gathering lasted nearly three hours, with about half the time focused solely on Choochokam; nearly a dozen community members attended to voice their objections. Celia Black, president of Choochokam Arts Foundation board of directors and Gwen Jones, vice president of the Choochokam Arts Foundation board, were also in attendance.

“The timing for planning this is horrible,” commissioner Dennis Hunter said. “I have my concerns,  but the move would be good for the future.”

District commissioners also approved applicable license requirements for vendors, and agreed to charge a fee for the right to do business on park property in accordance with state law.

Some of those in attendance included a Langley business owner, and representatives from the South Whidbey Little League and the Whidbey Island Fair Association; all were opposed to Choochokam’s proposed move to Community Park.

One of the primary concerns is garbage and the resulting clean up effort, as meeting attendees spoke of their pride of the condition of the sports complex that Community Park features.

“The sports fields are wonderful, the park is always full with kids during the summer,” said Shawna Hilton, a Langley business owner. “What does the trash say to the kids when they come out to play?”

South Whidbey Little League hosts a tournament there every year, which helps the organization fund numerous scholarships, according to Olivia Batchelor, league president.

Other concerns regarded scheduling conflicts with summer sports leagues, primarily Little League, whose season is slated to end on Friday, July 15, the day prior to the Choochokam starting date.

“We can’t plan the tournament until the Parks and Recreation district approves the plans,” Batchelor said. The district is working with South Whidbey Little League to work around these scheduling conflicts, and moving the final Little League games to the morning is being considered. Moving the games to an earlier time would allow the festival set-up to take place on the night of July 15.

A Langley business owner present was also concerned about losing the foot traffic Choochokam brings to the city — it’s a boost for merchants. The Langley business community is split on how beneficial Choochokam is for commerce, as some store owners have told The Record their stores have been blocked by vendors in past years and business isn’t always positively impacted.

Choochokam organizers Black and Jones stressed that the reasoning behind the festival’s move is all about the event’s growth. In the past few years, attendance at Choochokam has declined, and it wouldn’t be able to survive in Langley because the city limits the number of vendors and the cost of renting space, according to Black. They believe moving the festival will allow for more vendors, more people, more parking and bigger sponsors. Additionally, moving to Community Park would help the festival become more family friendly, according to Black.

“Choochokam is not here to tear up the baseball fields,” Jones said. “If we don’t move the festival, it cannot maintain financially. In order to bring in higher end sponsors and to bring in bigger acts, we need to move to a bigger area.”

This year’s edition of the iconic South Whidbey festival may not allow alcohol on the premises, as Parks and Recreation commissioners were concerned about the lack of ample time to plan the logistics that come with alcohol consumption, such as licenses, additional security, changing their current alcohol policy and clean-up. As of now, alcohol consumption in Community Park is not permitted.

According to District Director Doug Coutts, more planning needs to go into the decision to allow alcohol consumption, but nothing is set in stone regarding the addition of a beer garden.

If the park were to allow booze at this year’s festival, Choochokam organizers would set up a drinking area within the basketball courts, complete with surrounding fences in order to monitor drinkers and their trash, according to Jones. They would also hire additional security and prioritize field maintenance at Community Park, Jones said. No alcohol would be permitted on the fields.

More details of the festival layout were presented at the meeting as well. Shuttle buses are slated as a feature of this year’s festival, with bus lines connecting the Clinton ferry, downtown Langley and the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. Vendors will set up on the pavement in the parking lot, no tents are allowed on the grass fields and concerts will be held in the dirt within the baseball diamonds. Choochokam organizers made a point in the meeting to emphasize that maintaining the quality of the sports fields is a top priority.

Moving forward, Choochokam organizers expressed interest in moving the date of the festival to August in order to avoid schedule conflicts with youth sports. While the plan’s specifics aren’t concrete, the festival is still on for July 16 and 17, 2016.