Sylva approves brief road closure for Pride
An application to use Bridge Park and Main Street for the annual Pride event has led the Town of Sylva to a larger discussion about safety and the use of town resources for events held downtown.
“I just want to say how much I appreciate Pride and Travis [Rountree] and the Pride committee for working with the town,” said Commissioner Ben Guiney. “The festival has such a great feel, and I’m so excited to have this again. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a fantastic event and I hope to see it grow in the future.”
In September, town staff began working to update the application to rent Bridge Park due to an increasing number of requests for large events that involved renting out the park combined with road closures downtown. Additionally, the town had seen an increase in safety risks.
“During the first pride event, a car didn’t realize a parade was happening and followed closely behind the group that was walking,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. “Then last year during Walk for Hope, a car wasn’t aware the walk was happening and started to back out of their space on main street. So after that staff realized we needed to work to make these events safer.”
The revised outdoor special application encourages bigger events to take place at Bridge Park due to safety constraints as well as manpower. Larger events increase the need for more resources. While town staff can still approve park rentals, the authority to close the street now rests with the town board.
Currently, the board approves road closure permits for the Christmas Parade, Greening Up the Mountains, Veterans Day and Western Carolina University’s Homecoming, which WCU police help staff, as well as a temporary road closure for July fourth fireworks if necessary.
Pride’s application includes the two-block parade route the organization has done up Main Street the last two years. The park rental for Pride was previously approved by town staff and during the May 11 Sylva town meeting, the town board considered the request for road closure for a march.
“The park rental is approved but the board will need to vote on approving the march only,” said Dowling. “Pride has a great staff, and they work wonderfully with the town on coordinating the other events throughout the weekend.”
According to Dowling, the board has always approved temporary road closure permits to be sent to the Department of Transportation for events that stop, block or detour traffic on state maintained roads. This is referred to as sponsoring. The town sponsors, or approves, road closure permits acknowledging that it will provide police, equipment, signage and anything necessary to ensure safety throughout the closure.
“We’ve got to pay attention to the climate in our country right now, what happens at large events,” said Police Chief Chris Hatton. “You have to be very, very careful about every entry way where a vehicle can enter into a crowd. That would be any event, but this event in particular, there’s some controversy with some people there so you really got to be paying attention.”
Hatton noted that while in years past blocking a road could be done with caution tape, in order to ensure safety in today’s world, blocking a road has to include barricades filled with water or large vehicles blocking the road to ensure that no other vehicle could pass through the barrier and harm the crowd.
The two-block route that has been used for pride for two years now is much easier to make safe than closing Main Street throughout downtown. This type of road closure also takes considerably less time for town staff to set up and requires Main Street to be closed to traffic for a relatively short amount of time.
“It feels like what we’re experiencing a little bit here is some growing pains,” said Mayor David Nestler. “Acknowledging that this does put a burden on our staff, I think we do need to start being a little bit more selective on our road closures and push these events more towards Bridge Park. That being said, I still would like to see this be one of the street closures.”
Nestler suggested town staff look into the possibility of, in addition to paying people overtime for working town events on the weekend, providing comp time.
“I would just say for Pride itself. I think we have a responsibility to communities outside of Sylva through Pride and that is something that we should be proud of,” said Commissioner Brad Waldrop.
The board approved the two-block closure unanimously.