Tempers ran hot on Tuesday evening at a special meeting of the Dawsonville City Council, which was called in order to reconsider stipulations for the 53rd annual Mountain Moonshine Festival and answer outstanding questions about the festival's plans.
At the meeting, K.A.R.E. for Kids representatives clashed with council members and city staff over the issue of whether Hwy. 53, a major Dawson County traffic artery, would be partially closed for the festival, which is scheduled to take place in downtown Dawsonville during the last weekend in October.
Despite concerns voiced by K.A.R.E. for Kids representatives on the conditions of the festival's permit, council members voted unanimously to uphold the permit's approval, with the same conditions which were approved at a meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
When the permit was initially approved, city officials stipulated that Hwy. 53, which is usually closed during the annual festival, would remain open unless all possible vendor spaces on Memory Lane, Allen Street, Main Street Park and the farmers market pavilion were completely filled.
Representatives from K.A.R.E. for Kids told the council on Tuesday that they would not use all of the roads previously outlined by the city, stating that they need Hwy. 53 to be closed for the festival to take place.
“We have 101 vendors, and 252 spaces because some have two, some have three and some have four,” K.A.R.E. for Kids President Rhonda Goodwin said. “And we’re still getting vendors every day, so we need [Highway] 53.”
In response, Dawsonville City Manager Bob Bolz stated that the space allotted for the festival on city roads surrounding city hall would have enough room to accommodate the 292 vendor spaces, if K.A.R.E. for Kids chose to use all of the roads outlined by the city.
“If they’re not using Allen Street to the library that’s 1190 feet they’re not using, and if they don’t use Memory Lane to Jack Heard that’s another 1000 feet,” Bolz said. “So that’s almost 2200 feet right there.”
Dawsonville Mayor Mike Eason explained that unless all other possible options are eliminated, they want to keep Hwy. 53 open for citizens' safety concerns and to keep the festival contained.
“We wanna have a safe festival and a great festival and make this the best we can under the conditions we’ve got,” Eason said.
From an emergency response perspective, Dawson County Fire Chief Danny Thompson told the council that fire and EMS response times would be much faster if Hwy. 53 were to remain open, but that the Dawson County Fire Department will be willing to work with whatever the council decides.
“We have always in the special events permit process opposed any of the state highways being closed; that has always been a reflection of the response time,” Thompson said. “House fires double in size for every minute that aren’t under control and brain cells begin to die after five minutes.”
According to Thompson, the closure of 53 would lead to an added two to five minutes to the average emergency response time during the festival.
“We will work with whatever plan that the city council and K.A.R.E. for Kids come out with, just know that we want you to consider those response times and the effect that it has on those citizens and visitors to the community,” Thompson said.
Council Member Stephen Tolson added that he has spoken to business owners off of Hwy. 53, and that if the road were to remain open during the festival, those local businesses could remain open as well.
“A business downtown did say that the turnout would be great from a business perspective and if [Hwy. 53] remained open they would be able to stay open as well,” Tolson said. “In previous years they have not and they lose that income.”
In response to these concerns, K.A.R.E. for Kids representatives told the council that the festival will be able to operate as smoothly as previous years without the closure of Hwy. 53.
Speaking to the council, K.A.R.E. for Kids Treasurer Angela Harben also said that as a business, K.A.R.E. for Kids should have a say in the decision about Hwy. 53, because the outcome could impact the festival's overall profitability.
“For the city to be able to tell us where to place vendors I think is appalling; it’s our business and we should be allowed to place vendors wherever we need to," Harben said. "[Hwy. 53] needs to be closed for the safety of our community but also for the profitability of our festival.”
After hearing the different sides, council members agreed that as they had previously decided, the safest option for citizens in Dawsonville would be for Hwy. 53 to remain open. Council members reiterated that if vendors fill every space in the areas approved by the city, they could reopen a discussion about closing Hwy. 53.
“Safety is our primary concern … as a council, we have to consider the safety of the city,” Tolson said. “The citizens do want K.A.R.E. for Kids to earn money and they do want to provide entertainment, but they also want us to try to weigh potential safety issues; from my perspective the safety has a lot to do with whether the road is closed or not.”
Eason and the council members all said that at the end of the day, their main concern is making sure the citizens of Dawsonville are safe during the festival.
“Our purpose is to provide public-safety, not vendor space,” Eason said.