Is the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival in jeopardy?

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Is the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival in jeopardy?

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Visitors crowded the streets of Waynesville during the 2016 Ohio Sauerkraut Festival. The village has created new regulations to offset costs and limit liability at this and other village events. RON WILSON/CONTRIBUTED

Organizers of the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival are reviewing new regulations established by the Waynesville Council to replace a contract, the most recent version of which the popular festival going into its 48th year had been operating under for seven years.

Lonnie Schear, chairman of the 2017 festival, said the Waynesville Area Chamber of Commerce, which stages the event, was taking applications from vendors for the 2017 festival, but planned to have the new regulations - the last of which were approved last week by the village council - reviewed by lawyer Martin Hubbell.

“We’ll get him to review it and see where we go from there,” Schear said after the new regulations were approved by the village council.

The village council canceled the contract last year, although three years were remaining, after the 2016 festival.

The cancellation followed a falling-out over the charges for police protection and other changes called for by the council to protect the village from liability and reduce or eliminate annual expenses of more than $10,000 a year from the festival.

“That’s our obligation to protect the village and its revenues,” Mayor Dave Stubbs said after the council approved the last of the new regulations Monday.

Waynesville is a close-knit community.

The chamber retained Hubbell - a Waynesville native whose practice is based in Lebanon - in the dispute after discovering two local lawyers they approached about it worked for the village, Schear said.

The Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau lists the festival as one of its top annual tourist attractions, drawing a big chunk of the people credited with spending more than $1 billion a year in Warren County, self-proclaimed as “Ohio’s Largest Playground.”

Earlier this month, Hubbell warned that the village council needed to avoid making changes that would overburden the chamber and volunteer committee that puts on the festival.

“If the chamber doesn’t put on this one, there’s nobody else,” Hubbell said.

The new regulations establish a permitting system for all events, also including antique and Christmas festivals that draw people to the small, cash-strapped village.

Event organizers take on responsibility for background checks on vendors and other participants under the new regulations.

Rates are set for village services, including police protection. Organizers can choose between $50 an hour police rates through the village or hire village officers as private contractors for roughly half as much.

“We don’t have any control over these officers,” Schear said. “We can’t take on the liability.”

Because of the size of the event footprint, sauerkraut festivals are now required to carry more insurance and pay a $325 permit fee.

“It would cost us an additional couple thousand dollars a year,” Schear estimated, while acknowledging new regulations no longer require the sponsors to pay for background checks in “vetting” vendors.

The chamber can still expect to take in as much as $100,000 or more a year.

Revenues come from fees from about 470 craft vendors and 30 local civic groups that sell food - much of it with sauerkraut as a key ingredient.

With proceeds, the groups fill their coffers for another year of community support.

Proceeds also depend on continued support from sponsors, which vary from year to year, Schear added.

“This festival has to go on, it’s such a big part of this community,” he said.

But Schear said the chamber would review the new rules before deciding what to do next.

“We are doing what we normally do. It hopefully doesn’t get to that point down the road somewhere,” he said.

Stubbs said the new process was designed to standardize and simplify organizing events. He said the village lost $4,000 last year on the festival, primarily on police charges.

But he pointed out the village fills potholes, levels uneven walks and completes numerous other maintenance tasks in anticipation of the crowds descending on the downtown.

“It’s not unreasonable for the scope and scale of the festival,” Stubbs said.

Legal research, including Ohio Attorney General’s Office opinions, reviewed since the falling out left the village council convinced state law bars them - and other village councils in Ohio - from making donations, subsidizing or offering work in kind, the mayor said.

Told of Hubbell’s comments about the chamber possibly giving up the festival, Stubbs said, ““I would hope that’s not true. It’s so successful.”

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