As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The same is seemingly true when it comes to event attendees who didn’t heed Ship Bottom officials’ push to use shuttle buses during the 2018 LBI Fly International Kite Festival, resulting in a second consecutive year peppered with significant traffic safety concerns. To combat those concerns, changes are being made to this year’s event.
“The chief called me and said they can’t do it on their own; there are significant safety concerns,” Dan Malay, an officer with the LBI Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event, said of a conversation with Ship Bottom Police Chief Paul Sharkey after the 2018 event.
Thirteen months earlier, Ship Bottom Councilman Tom Tallon brought those same concerns to his counterparts during a discussion about approving the kite festival. He, too, cited those concerns as belonging to Sharkey. Tallon is the chairman of the public safety committee. In January 2018, the council did approve the kite festival to continue in Ship Bottom, pending a conversation with event planners and sponsors in which traffic safety was the priority.
“I don’t think we dropped the ball,” Tallon said.
Discussions included road closures and a bigger push for festival-goers to use shuttle buses, which was an option in 2017, but traffic snarls were still a problem in the gateway community to Long Beach Island. In 2018, park-and-rides were available on Saturday and Sunday of Columbus Day weekend from a number of locations, including the LBI Grade School and the Ethel Jacobsen School.
“We failed to do what we thought we could. We can’t make people get on the bus,” Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck said recently. “We hate to see it go.”
For their part, Malay said, festival planners have no desire to take the event away from Ship Bottom. Two features of the four-day festival, including the indoor event on Friday evening at the LBI Grade School, will still be held in Ship Bottom this year.
“There are great advantages to having the festival in Ship Bottom,” Malay said, “but it was designed to be an Island-wide event. We’re looking for ways to get the other towns involved.”
That’s part of the reason the Sunday events held in Ship Bottom the previous four years are expected to move to Long Beach Township for the fifth anniversary celebration this year, he said. Other changes include moving the Sunday night event at the Barnegat Lighthouse State Park to Saturday evening, Malay said.
“It’s a safety and monetary issue for us,” Malay told Ship Bottom officials at their caucus meeting last month, noting changing venue sites opens the event to more sponsorships from local businesses.
The event is held Columbus Day weekend, and makes the most of the shoulder season, the time between peak summer and the off-season. However, on Sunday, it coincides with the LBI 18-Mile Run, an annual event on LBI since 1972. The race begins in Holgate and ends in Barnegat Light with some lane closures on most of Long Beach Boulevard, the Island’s main thoroughfare.
Huelsenbeck believes keeping the traffic signals on for the event would have eased some of the traffic safety concerns and helped alleviate traffic snarls throughout the borough. Traffic signals along Long Beach Boulevard, a county road, are turned off the day after Chowderfest, an annual event that occurs the week before the kite festival.
Council President Edward English wanted to know what Ship Bottom could do to keep the event there.
The event, which started as a way to showcase colorful artist-design kites and highlight sport kiting, quickly became the largest kite festival in North America. In 2018, it drew the top names in international kite flying from Canada, Germany and Tasmania.
“The best kite fliers in the world want to come here,” festival founder Lisa Willoughby, a master-level sport kite pilot and Surf City resident, said following the 2018 festival.
— Gina G. Scala