The award-winning outdoor Herndon Festival, held yearly and produced by the town’s parks and recreation department, supported by volunteers since 1981 (except for one year during COVID) is permanently canceled. Herndon's town manager Bill Ashton announced this during the Town Council Public Session on Tuesday, Dec. 12. [Watch the video beginning at 21:08].
“The Herndon Festival provided a necessary foundation on which to grow this next chapter. It's not something we threw away; it's something we intend to build upon,” Ashton said. “I look forward to your thoughts, ideas, and certainly assistance crafting this next chapter … which will not be as big. It will certainly provide us with the opportunity to do a better series of events.”
Ashton sees the cancellation as necessary because of a decline in volunteer organizations, significant staff turnover resulting in a lack of institutional expertise, safety and security concerns, and other factors. “Any one of these things … if manifested leading up to the festival, would have derailed it at the last minute after we would have spent thousands of hours planning this and preparing for it. This would have wasted taxpayer dollars doing that. That's a lot of risks to carry into this on the hope that these things will all fall in our way,” said Ashton.
For over fifteen minutes, Ashton provided candid and thorough explanations concerning difficulties recently encountered, producing the 4-day event, which is expected to remain the same in 2024. The challenges are not unique to Herndon. Many of the same issues are occurring across the United States and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
Logistic and production challenges ranged from a lack of volunteer groups, something seen similarly across the nation with groups having a hard time fielding their events, much less somebody else’s. According to Ashton, they only had 60 percent of the volunteers they needed signing up by two days before the 2023 event. “That itself would have triggered a last-minute cancellation of the event if we had not cobbled together enough volunteers in the 11th-hour change. The assignments did a lot of jumping, bobbing, and weaving to make it work,” Ashton said.
The community's safety and security are constantly at the forefront of Ashton's mind. "There is nothing more true than that is always the first and last thing I think about," Ashton said.
Ashton described difficulties hiring a security company and maintaining a police presence for the 2023 Festival. He predicted that security would remain a challenge. They had trouble contracting a security provider to undertake bag checks for all four days of the 2023 Festival, a vital first step in securing the site. The Herndon Police Department cannot lawfully check bags without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and volunteers are untrained and unbonded.
One company “packed out of us” on Monday and the other on Wednesday of the week the festival was poised to start on Thursday. “We were within 24 hours of canceling Festival 2023 when we were able to ratify a contract and an hour and a half before the gates opened," said Ashton.
According to Ashton, Festival necessitates a significant police presence, yet law enforcement hiring across the country and locally is at a "crisis level." He predicted that security will remain a difficulty because the town's law enforcement partners, Fairfax Sheriff and Virginia State Police, are understaffed and require overtime just to meet minimal coverage levels for their primary missions. While Herndon Police is in a better hiring position than some of its neighboring jurisdictions, Ashton said the department needs to use mandatory overtime to address operational demands. “The festival would also be mandatory overtime for these people,” Ashton said.
Ashton added that he and Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard had talked about shutting down the event if the town had any significant felony inside its jurisdiction. “We would have to shut the festival down to be able to adequately put crime scene [officers] and detectives on site,” Ashton said.
Ashton said that institutional knowledge of the festival’s production is gone as so many of the town’s employees have left for various reasons. "Parks and Rec staffing, especially in the recreation section, which bears a significant portion of the brunt of planning and execution, has experienced 100 percent turnover in the past two years," Ashton said.
He noted that one deputy director of Parks and Recreation remains with a festival history, but this is insufficient. The Department of Public Works is also having difficulty recruiting. "This is knowledge leaking; we have to keep our minds on [it]," he remarked.
Lastly, the expanding Spring Street road construction project will affect transit and pedestrian mobility and accessibility to and from Festival if held in 2024. Festival was relocated five years ago to the Northwest Federal Credit Union parking lot. Festival cannot be moved back to historic downtown since Comstock owns a substantial piece of the land where it was previously held.
Ashton added that the town has worked extremely hard in the last year to enhance the electrical access along Lynn Street in the historic downtown district and has begun the design and engineering of retractable bollards. They telescope into in-ground receivers when unlocked, sitting flush with the ground, so they are neither a tripping hazard nor an obstruction. When extended, they offer a clean perimeter edge that guides and manages traffic for pedestrian-oriented events. Ashton aims to have these funded through the American Rescue Plan Act State Fiscal Recovery Fund Allocations and implement them in 2024.